Why is the populist radical right so successful in Estonia?

  • 2023-01-18
  • Tonis Saarts, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics, Tallinn University, School of Governance, Law and Society

The Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) has undoubtedly become one of the most successful populist right-wing parties the Baltic States have seen so far. According to recent polls, support for EKRE reaches up to 25%, and the Estonian national elections will take place already in March next year. However, the respective parties both in Latvia and Lithuania, are far from enjoying a similar public appeal. The National Alliance in Latvia obtained only 9% of the votes in the recent elections this October, while Lithuania has proved to be a very anomalous case in the whole of Europe: the right-wing populists lost their seats in the legislature in the 2020 elections and the party (Order and Justice) dissolved. 

Thus, why has EKRE in Estonia been so successful, leaving behind all their sister parties in the other Baltic States? The respective theories on the rise of populism usually bring out two kinds of explanations. First, the rising social inequality and economic insecurity breed populism – it explains why the contemporary working class and rural population have become the most faithful constituencies of far-right parties across Europe. Indeed, many people feel "left behind" and do not consider themselves as the winners in this "new brave globalizing world". Perhaps there are more people like this in Estonia than in Latvia and Lithuania? Second, the acknowledged political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart are skeptical towards the socio-economic explanations and argue that we rather are witnessing a conservative cultural backlash. According to them, many sections in modern societies have not come along with the recent shift to postmodernist values, emphasizing tolerance, ethnic/racial diversity, self-expression, gender equality, etc. Perhaps the Estonian population tends to be just more conservative, and traditional values have become more entrenched than is the case for more progressive Latvia and Lithuania?   

According to Eurostat, the Gini index (measuring income inequality) is indeed one of the highest in the Baltic States in the whole EU, but Latvia and Lithuania are ahead of Estonia, in which social inequality has rather decreased during the recent decade. Furthermore, even though regional income disparities are still very accentuated in Estonia, the situation is even worse in Latvia. Briefly, the socio-economic inequality argument does not work here. Neither does the conservative cultural backlash thesis. Following the data provided by the European Social Survey, it comes out that the Estonian population is slightly more tolerant towards sexual minorities and immigration and more satisfied with the functioning of democracy than their Baltic neighbors. Hence, according to the socio-economic and cultural explanations mentioned above, populist right-wing parties should be far more successful in Latvia and Lithuania than in Estonia.

Nonetheless, how to understand the astonishing success of EKRE? The political scientists more specialized in Eastern Europe, Tim Haughton and Kevin Deegan-Krause, have recently claimed that successful and electorally persistent parties usually do three things: (1) they develop strong and geographically extensive party organizations, (2) they represent one or more major social cleavages in a given society and have an issue-ownership regarding them, and (3) they have capable leaders. EKRE does all of this, while their Baltic colleagues barely manage to show comparable achievements in any of those three preconditions. 

EKRE has 10 000 members, and the party has one of the most geographically extensive organizations in Estonia. In contrast, the National Alliance in Latvia has a rudimentary membership and geographical coverage compared to EKRE. The EKRE's leaders have very skillfully formulated one of the major conflict dimensions in contemporary Estonian politics: the confrontation between the liberal and conservative camps – between those favoring global openness vs those claiming back national sovereignty. In contrast, the National Alliance in Latvia is far from being the principal owner of the rising conservative-liberal divide – several other capable contestants are eager to exploit that new division. The party seems even more credible when playing on the ethnic cleavage, but the nationalist anti-Russian niche in Latvian politics has also been overcrowded. Finally, does the reader of this column know the name of the current leader of the National Alliance? Is he a very charismatic and well-known Latvian politician? Nonetheless, many have heard about the Helmes family at the helm of EKRE in Estonia. 

Consequently, in a decade, the Helmes (Mart and Martin Helme) have built a party that rests on strong organizational foundations, formulated one of the major new, mobilizing cleavages in Estonian politics, and as party leaders, they themselves radiate charisma and political willpower. In contrast, their Baltic colleagues have more or less failed in all those dimensions. Thus, it might not come as a surprise that EKRE has become the most successful radical right party in the Baltic States today.