Estonians vote in general election dominated by Ukraine war and soaring cost of living

The far-right party seeking to replace the current government blames the PM for rocketing inflation

Estonian voters cast their ballots on Sunday
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Estonian voters headed to the ballot box on Sunday to have their say in a parliamentary election dominated by conversations about the war in Ukraine.

The centre-right Reform Party, headed by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, was tipped to come out on top.

About half of the more than 900,000 people who were eligible to vote in the general election did so in advance. Preliminary election results are expected by early Monday.

“I voted today. Online like a proper Estonian,” Ms Kallas, who was elected prime minister in 2021, wrote on Twitter last week.

The Baltic nation, which shares a border with Russia, has been on heightened a security alert over the past year over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ms Kallas has been one of Europe’s most outspoken supporters in Kyiv and last month urged EU partners to speed up the delivery of military aid to Ukraine. She also called on the EU to give the defence industry a “clear signal” to produce more weaponry as war rages in Eastern Europe.

Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is one of Europe's most outspoken supporters of Ukraine. AFP

Fighting for re-election, Ms Kallas wrote on Twitter that “the key to deterring Russia in the future is accountability”. She warned that unless the West holds President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle accountable for the war against Ukraine “we will see aggression happening again and again”.

The Estonian leader also accused Moscow of “waging hybrid war” against its foes, “from cyber attacks to disinformation campaigns, in an attempt to disrupt our societies”.

Ms Kallas faces a challenge from the far-right populist EKRE party, which seeks to limit the country’s exposure to the Ukraine crisis and blames the current government for Estonia's high inflation rate.

The country of 1.3 million has one of Europe’s highest rates of inflation, which soared to 18.6 per cent in January.

'We need changes'

Ms Kallas’s party is expected to scoop up around 28 per cent of votes, ahead of EKRE, with around 18 per cent, according to an opinion poll conducted by Kantar Emor.

Nine political parties in all fielded candidates for Estonia’s 101-seat parliament, or Riigikogu.

Areas at the forefront of voters’ minds include Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and socio-economic issues, particularly the rising cost of living.

Five parties were represented in the outgoing parliament. The Reform Party has led the current coalition government, with the small conservative Fatherland party and the Social Democrats.

Ms Kallas’s political group has been a key player in Estonian politics since the mid-1990s and continuously held the prime minister’s post during 2005-2016. It regained the position in 2021 with Ms Kallas at the helm.

For some Estonians, the party's extended time in power represents stability, while others are seeking fresh faces in government.

Oskar Vanem, a voter in the country’s capital Tallinn, said he thought it was time to switch things up. "Everything depends on if a new party is elected to the government,” he said. “Many are waiting for it. One fraction [the Reform Party] can’t govern eternally like Putin does in Moscow. We need changes.”

Martin Helme, leader of EKRE and the main challenger to the Prime Minister’s position, accused Ms Kallas of undermining Estonia’s defences by giving weapons to Ukraine.

“We’ve never questioned support for Ukraine,” he said. “We’ve never questioned Estonia's membership in Nato. That’s just crazy talk. But what we have been is very critical of the government because they have not assessed the risk to Estonia and to Estonian security and defence.”

Mr Helme said that under the current administration Estonia had “basically given away all our heavy weaponry to Ukraine, and the replacement comes within two or three years”.

He warned such a strategy amounted to “an invitation of aggression”.

Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has since taken a clear western course, joining Nato and the EU.

Updated: March 05, 2023, 4:35 PM