Transformation of Politics in Estonia

Jaanika Erne |

From 4 to 5 December 2014, I participated in CBEES Annual Conference “Baltic Sea Region and Eastern Europe: A new generation on the move” at Södertörn University, Stockholm, which conference aimed at “contemporary processes and challenges, and […] the role of the new generations that have emerged in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea area 25 years after the systemic change 1989.” My conference paper was available here:!/p3/ext/content.nsf/aget?openagent&key=programme_1412595374243 and it analyses three level political party representation – political parties of the EU Member States, political parties operating at European level, and representation of Member States in the European Parliament. This three-level representation has been reflected from mainly two aspects: first, reflecting European political landscape, and second, participation in organizing elections and through that shaping European political landscape. I analysed political and legal aspects because these aspects are interrelated, and have reflected all this, in turn, on historical background – Estonian political party system has developed from Communist one-party system toward plurality. (In 1917 – pre-independence period – Estonia had Eesti Talurahva Liit (Estonian Agrarians’ Union) and Eesti Maarahva Liit (Estonian Country People’s Union), and in 1920 was established Agraarerakond (Estonian Agrarians’ Party) but the concrete research underlying my presentation focused on developments related to Estonia’s pre- and post-accession to the European Union (EU)). At the EU level, on the other hand, one may recognize the today’s inner trend toward greater cooperation in the framework of plurality (which I would name discursive plurality). At the EU level, the research recognized features of duopolism or – one can say – features of duopolistic antagonism between liberalism and socialism – to resume generally. The overall context has been connected with the attempts to coordinate European politics, coordination requires multi-level interdisciplinary analysis. Political parties at European level have grown out of the EU Member States’ historically developed political parties and connected with their dynamics. Similarly to national political parties, Europarties can generally be divided into rightist, leftist and centrist parties.

Since the link to my research article seems to be broken, I have added the article’s structure here, and try later to make a link available to some of the article’s published version.

1.      Introduction

2.      Political Parties and Party Systems in Europe

2.1. Theoretical background and general definitions

2.2. Historical development and new dynamics

2.3. Discursive Europe or consensus-based globalization?

3.      The Concept of the Political Party Operating at European Level

3.1. Conceptualizing through normative definitions

3.2. Contextualizing normative definitions

4.      Europarties and Political Parties of the Member States

4.1. The structure of political parties at European level

4.2. The structure of Estonian politics

4.3. The structure of European politics

4.3.1. European People’s Party

4.3.2. Party of European Socialists

4.3.3. Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

4.3.4. European Green Party

4.3.5. Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists

4.3.6. Party of the European Left

4.3.7. Movement for a Europe of Liberties and Democracy

4.3.8. European Democratic Party

4.3.9. European Free Alliance

4.3.10. European Alliance for Freedom

4.3.11. Alliance of European National Movements

4.3.12. European Christian Political Movement

4.3.13. EU Democrats

4.4. Political analysis of Europarties

5.      Political Representation in the European Parliament

6.      Conclusions

Follow some explanations of some chapters following the text of my presentation:

The structure of European politics

At the time the research underlying my presentation was conducted, there were 13 political parties registered at European level: European People’s Party (EPP), Party of European Socialists (PES), Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), European Green Party (EGP), Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), The Party of the European Left (EL), Movement for a Europe of Liberties and Democracy (MELD), European Democratic Party (EDP), European Free Alliance (EFA), European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), Alliance of European National Movements (AEMN), European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), and EU Democrats (EUD). Of those political parties, some have clearly determined themselves on the political scale as follows (this has been more comprehensively reflected in the text of the research paper): The European People’s Party (EPP) determines itself as representing centre-right and the idea of federal Europe; the Party of European Socialists (PES) determines itself as a left-wing Party bringing together the Socialist, Social Democrat and Labour Parties in the European Union; the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) supports liberal democrat values; the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) determines itself as a conservative, non-federalist political entity; the Party of the European Left (EL) claims to represent non-socialist left-wing (deciding upon its values, the author of this article would connect the EL with the European Parliament’s confederalist politics group European United Left – Nordic Green Left). The European Democratic Party (EDP) determines itself as a transnational political movement combining federalist and social aspiration; the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF) does not define itself within the left-right political scale, thus allowing members with wide political spectrum, at the same time it opposes centralised, supranational control;  the Alliance of European National Movements (AEMN) determines itself as a Christian confederalist party; the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM) determines itself as a Christian-democratic political party, representing Christian-socialists and embracing European Christian-democratic and Christian-social parties, NGO’s and think tanks. Then, the EU Democrats (EUD) does not take position on left-right policy issues, although it considers itself a pan-European EU-critical alliance, etc.  One conclusion that the research underlying this presentation allows is that one should not look at the name or self-definition of a political party but at its actual performance.

Political analysis of Europarties – from theoretical background to historical development and new dynamics

The overview given of the political parties operating at European level in the research article demonstrates that sometimes the ideological borders are blurred, allowing the researcher to talk about „mixed“ parties. It is also possible to distinguish between liberals, radicals, social democrats and conservatives, while sometimes the names of Europarties clearly demonstrate their relying on different basic ideologies.

By general definition in political science, political party is a group of people that is organized for the purpose of winning government power by electoral or other means. Heywood distinguishes political parties from other interest groups or political movements and understood that way, political parties – as organized political actors willing to win elections – are considered a recent phenomemon from the beginning of the 19th Century helping individuals in exercising the right to freely form associations. That way, political parties represent modern democracy and as major organizers of politics between governors and societal interest make modern democracy unthinkable without them. Political parties have also an important role in the European Union, which union defines itself as a democratic actor, as otherwise, democratic States would be governed by non-democratic international actors.

In history, political parties have generally by ideologies been divided into right, centre and left parties, whereas sometimes a party has been based on several ideologies. An example of a left-wing party is socialist party, generally understood as addressing liberty, equality, fraternity, economic and other social concerns, the poor, disadvantaged, working-class, reform, whereas an example of a right-wing party could be conservative party, supporting continuity or existing social order, authority, hierarchy, duties, tradition. The most common distinction of parties according to Heywood is distinction between cadre parties and mass parties – while cadre parties offer ideological leadership to the masses, mass parties aim at constructing and achieving a wide electorate. The related catch-all-parties try to win as many voters as possible. Parties may also be understood as representative parties and integrative parties. While representative parties aim at rather reflecting public opinion than shaping it and thus use market research and convincing and rational choice arguments in order to win votes, parties of integration wish to mobilize, educate and inspire the masses, rather than merely respond to their concern. By emergence, parties may be divided as elections-oriented or constitutional parties and revolutionist parties (e.g. socialist parties). The constitutional parties operate in a framework of rules, whereas revolutionist parties are anti-system or anticonstitutional aiming at seizure of power and constitutional change.

Although the Communist systems recognized one-party system, the liberal States know competitive two- or multi-party systems and correspondingly, in the post-Communist Eastern Europe the development has been from one party rule toward plurality. At the same time, the „Western“ European States can be characterized by the trend of approximating the left-wing and right-wing into consensus at the centre – meaning emergence of centre-right and centre-left instead of right and left (Mouffe 2012). At the same time, political forces have been antagonistic (as, for example, known from the French Revolution’s era, or from ancient societies) and according to Mouffe, they should remain antagonistic. A classical example of antagonism is emergence of socialism as utopian and revolutionary reaction against industrial capitalism, with the aim to end capitalist economy and replace it with common ownership, as usually understood (Heywood 1997: 49), which movement was in the 20th Century divided into revolutionary socialism that developed into Communism, and reformist constitutional socialism that has turned into social-democrats.

Discursive Europe or consensus-based globalization?

Although political scientists see political parties as competitive shapers of society with antagonism remaining there, in today’s Europe, the party ideologies are not that easily distinguishable any more –the right-wing uses for populist aims left-wing arguments, whereas the left-wing is using right-wing arguments. Mouffe explains the consensus at the center between center-right and center-left with political parties’ belief that there is no alternative to neoliberal globalization – to unipolar governance – which according to her can be explained with the former socialist or social-democrat parties’ belief that they have to manage the neoliberal globalization in a human way (Mouffe 2012), not with revolutionist change.

On the other hand, political realms remain diverse until one hegemonic consensus could be possible and the biggest problem is that such hegemonic consensus could only be possible when growing out and being identical with everyone’s morals (idealistic idea of democracy) – thus this is deemed a utopian ideal. But to my mind, the idealist world order could be utopian and as a scientist I even must support the utopian idea of ideal society.

Thus, if we agree that political parties remain competitive, until they remain competitive, there will exist at least two-dimensional party systems.

Estonian political scientist Tõnis Saarts sees two dimensions also in Estonian politics – on the one hand the Estonian Reform Party with Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (the right), and on the other hand Estonia’s Social Democratic Party with Estonian Center Party (the left) (Saarts 2014), although the number of registered political parties has even grown during the last year, indicating plurality. At the same time, according to the study on how to create a transnational party system, conducted by Directorate General of the European Parliament for internal policies, the wide variety in the numbers of parties at national level can constitute an obstacle for the development of a single European Union party system (European Parliament Directorate … 2010), which in itself is a sign of coordination.

At the European Union level, the party system can be characterized as giving rise to duopolistic or, at least, polarized pluralism – on the one hand there are the liberal political parties, such as European People’s Party with European Federalist Party, and on the other hand there are socialist political parties. Mouffe indicates that today most social-democratic parties are still naming themselves socialists, and she explains their behaviour by their probable acceptance of the fact that there exists no way in which they could transform to current hegemony and offer an alternative to neo-liberalism.

Maybe the development toward two-party system instead of wide pluralism could be an optimal solution, because according to Heywood, wide pluralism has also its dangers, whereas the author of this research admits that a two-party system might limit choice, thus it might possibly endanger freedom of association and its inter-dependent rights of freedom of expression and opinion and assembly as recognized by the European Court of Human Rights as interdependent rights.

What concerns the alternative of transformation of politics into agreement at the center – Mouffe is of opinion that although many people might understand that if there would be no more antagonism, democracy would change more mature, also this option, according to her, encounters problems, because the minimal difference between center-left and center-right would give no alternative to people but to accept, thus making any real fair democratic choice between left and right impossible, which may hinder individuals’ right to freely form associations. Mouffe understands politics as partisan, always with antagonistic dimension that she names agonistic confrontation.


Deriving from the previous, one can generalize that the system of political parties operating at European level can be characterized as multi-party system, from where one can find several characteristic features of catch-all parties – pluralism, information society and other features characteristic to postmodernism. In the integrated Europe of today, the political parties at European level reflect besides pan-European political ideologies also the spectrum of Europe of religions, green ideologies, national ideologies, attitude towards minorities (national groups), racism, resistance movements, other ideological tensions – and shape the all-European public opinion through media channels. Because of the large number of members, the characteristic features of a mass party can be found in the system, whereas the citizens have the possibility of following and influencing the work of the political parties through global networks (e.g. the Internet). The Europarties are rather constitutional than revolutionist parties, although it was difficult to determine the nature of Europarties being representative or integrative, as some parties growingly try to reflect public concern as characteristic to representative parties, while some also wish to mobilize, educate and inspire the elector, which is characteristic to integrative parties – thus one could conclude that of these features both are present.

At the same time, the Europarties should not be assessed from the viewpoint of reflecting European pluralist landscape but also from the viewpoint of organization of elections and shaping politics – although the Members of the European Parliament are elected by the citizens of the European Union, the Europarties participate in organizing electoral campaigns, work of the European Parliament and EU institutions, the roots of the latters’ proceedings reach to the EU Member States’ political parties who are members of Europarties and who present the candidates to the European Parliament, as well as State representatives to the European Union institutions, while at the same time allegations have been made about growing politicization of even the European Security and Defence Policy, and therefore questions have been posed about who finances and determines European politics, and whether the European Union might loose its leadership position in deciding its own political matters due to the influence from Third States, not to talk about party competition broadly understood as competition between the right-wing and left-wing European political parties.

The Concept of the Political Party Operating at European Level

Conceptualizing through normative definitions

By definition of the Venice Commission, a political party is „a free association of persons, one of the aims of which is to express the political will of citizens including through participation in the management of public affairs and the presentation of candidates to free and democratic elections’ (Guidelines on Political … 2010: 6). The Guidelines on Political Party Regulation by OSCE/ODIHR and Venice Commission understand political parties as „a collective platform for the expression of individuals’ fundamental rights to association and expression and have been recognized by the European Court of Human Rights as integral players in the democratic process“ (Ibid.: 6). The document further clarifies that political parties are the most widely used means for political participation and exercise of related rights and that political parties are foundational to a pluralist political society and that they play an active role in ensuring an informed and participative electorate, often constituting a bridge between the executive and legislative branches of government, whereas they can effectively prioritize the legislative agenda within a governmental society (Ibid.: 8).

The European Court of Human Rights has defined political parties as a form of association essential to the proper functioning of democracy (Case of the Refah Partisi) and has stated that: “It is in the nature of the role they play that political parties, the only bodies which can come to power, also have the capacity to influence the whole of the regime in their countries. By the proposals for an overall societal model which they put before the electorate and by their capacity to implement those proposals once they come to power, political parties differ from other organisations which intervene in the political arena“ (Guidelines on Political … 2010: 9) and that political parties hold an “essential role in ensuring pluralism and the proper functioning of democracy” (Ibid.).

According to Article 10(4) of the Treaty on European Union, political parties at European level contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the will of citizens of the Union.

Article 224 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union empowers the European Parliament and the Council under the ordinary legislative procedure and by means of regulations to lay down the regulations governing political parties at European level, especially the rules regarding their funding.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union defines political parties at Union level in Article 12(2), using part of the general definition given by the Treaty on European Union, stressing the part that political parties at Union level contribute to expressing the political will of the citizens of the Union. The definition lies in Article 12 of the Charter, headed „Freedom of assembly and of association,“ with the aim to guarantee everyone the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association at all levels, in particular in political, whereas the rights to vote and stand as a candidate at elections stand under a distinct Chapter of the Charter. As Article 12 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights contains rights which correspond to rights guaranteed by the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, according to the General Provisions in its Article 52, the meaning and scope of those rights shall be the same as those laid down by the said Convention, whereas the European Union is allowed to provide more extensive protection. As the Preamble of the Charter of Fundamental Rights refers to the Explanations prepared under the authority of the Praesidium of the Convention which drafted the Charter and updated under the responsibility of the Praesidium of the European Convention as the source for interpretation by the courts of the European Union and the Member States of the Charter, the author of this article also looked at the referred Explanations but concerning political parties at Union level directly they only say that Paragraph 2 of Article 12 corresponds to Article 10 of the Treaty on the European Union.

As the Treaties do not give further definition nor explanation of political party at European level, the article finds such definition from Article 2 of Regulation (EC) No. 2004/2003 as follows: „1. ‘political party’ means an association of citizens: – which pursues political objectives, and – which is either recognised by, or established in accordance with, the legal order of at least one Member State; 2. ‘alliance of political parties’ means structured cooperation between at least two political parties; 3. ‘political party at European level’ means a political party or an alliance of political parties which satisfies the conditions referred to in Article 3.“

The scope of the definition is explained in the Preamble of the same Regulation, referring to experience that has shown that a political party at European level may have as its members either citizens gathered together in the form of a political party or political parties which together form an alliance, for which reason also the terms „political party“ and „alliance of political parties“ have been clarified by the Regulation.

Article 3 of the same Regulation sets the conditions, which a political party at European level must meet: “(a) it must have legal personality in the Member State in which its seat is located; (b) it must be represented, in at least one quarter of Member States, by Members of the European Parliament or in the national Parliaments or regional Parliaments or in the regional assemblies, or it must have received, in at least one quarter of the Member States, at least three per cent of the votes cast in each of those Member States at the most recent European Parliament elections; (c) it must observe, in particular in its programme and in its activities, the principles on which the European Union is founded, namely the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law; (d) it must have participated in elections to the European Parliament, or have expressed the intention to do so.“

Contextualizing normative definitions

The importance of such normative definitions is that they give political parties operating at European level a legal status and legal personality separate of that from national political parties and according to Chryssochoou such separation makes Europarties less dependent from national party structures, at the same time it increases Europarties’ capacity to act as „representative agents of EU citizens“ (Chryssochoou 2011: 6).

Building legitimacy through shaping public opinion, educating people, giving citizens the opinion that they exercise power over the government – thus encouraging citizens to participate in politics and mobilizing active consent providing justifications, influencing the formation of governance, strengthening elites, directly influencing policies, – these are few of the listed by social scientists functions that dominate election campaigns and influence political competition (Heywood 1997: 255-256). Heywood refers to political discursiveness, claiming that education only means providing information, engaging public interest and stimulating debate, whereas candidates and parties attempt rather at persuading than scientific educating, therefore they may spread incomplete and distorted information (Ibid: 255). The author of this article understands and names such as political discourses.

According to an economic theory of democracy, voters select parties in much the same way as purchasers select goods (Ibid: 256) – thus if a party is willing to win, it can try to organize a campaign corresponding to the interests of the largest group of voters, whereas the voters may be interested in visual advertising or other less contentious factors, thus Heywood says that election results may rather reflect the resources and finances available to a competing party (Ibid: 256) and that the influences upon voting can be psychological, sociological, economic and ideological (Ibid: 266). Heywood also characterizes elections as means through which governments and political elites can control and govern people (Ibid: 255).

In such context is understandable that the European Parliament’s Directorate General for Internal Policies has been interested in governing Europarties and has established that subjection of Europarties to the same legal regime may favour the development of European Union party system (European Parliament Directorate … 2002).

The structure of Estonian politics

At the same time, the political parties at European level do not directly correspond to the names of or division in Member States of political parties. For example, at the time the article underlying this presentation was being written, Estonia had the following political parties registered: Eesti Reformierakond (Estonian Reform Party), Eesti Keskerakond (Estonian Centre Party), Erakond Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit (Pro Patria and Res Publica Union), Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond (Estonia’s Social Democratic Party), Eesti Iseseisvuspartei (Party of Estonian Independence), Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond (Conservative People’s Party of Estonia), Eesti Vabaduspartei – Põllumeeste Kogu (Estonian Freedom Party – Farmers’ Assembly), Eestimaa Ühendatud Vasakpartei (Estonian Associated Left), Erakond Eestimaa Rohelised (Estonian Greens), Rahva Ühtsuse Erakond (Party of People’s Unity), Eesti Vaba Erakond (Estonian Free Party) – from which parties many belong to Europarties or to other international political groups. For example, Eesti Reformierakond (Estonian Reform Party) belongs to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), to which Alliance also belongs Eesti Keskerakond (Estonian Centre Party). Erakond Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit (Pro Patria and Res Publica Union) is associated with European People’s Party (EPP), Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond (Estonia’s Social Democratic Party) is associated with the Party of European Socialists (PES), Eestimaa Ühendatud Vasakpartei (Estonian Associated Left) is associated with the Party of the European Left (EL), Erakond Eestimaa Rohelised (Estonian Greens) is associated with European Greens (EGP).

Some Estonian political parties have not been willing to join Europarties but the author of this article would rather believe that the reasons are not connected with unacceptability of direct form of interference into the domestic public spheres (Chryssochoou 2011: 4) because internal parties and Europarties are interrelated, and because Europarties also express the political will of European Union citizens (Ibid.) similarily to internal parties.

One can infer already from the names of Estonian political parties that by ideology they are divided into right, center and left parties, while according to their programmes they may represent mixed ideologies and liberal, social-democrat and conservative politics. One can also infer that Estonian political parties are generally willing to cooperate with political parties at European level, as they do with also other international groups with whom they share values.

Political Representation in the European Parliament

While the citizens of the Member States put forward and elect their representatives to the European Parliament, political parties at European level participate in organizing election campaigns to the European Parliament, thus being able to shape European politics.

The role of the European Parliament alone and in cooperation with other European Union institutions and national parliaments is crucial.

There are seven groups in the European Parliament – Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, European Conservatives and Reformists, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, European United Left – Nordic Green Left, the Greens / European Free Alliance, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group.

Although the people working in the European Union institutions are committed to independent serving of the European Union interest, the political parties at European level, and the groups in the European Parliament stress their political belonging. Thus, one may read from the website of the European Parliament that Tunne Kelam who represents Estonia in the Group of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, comes from Erakond Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit (Party of Pro Patria and Res Publica Union); Kaja Kallas and Urmas Paet who in the European Parliament belong to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, both come from Eesti Reformierakond (Estonian Reform Party); whereas Yana Toom who in the European Parliament also belongs to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, comes from Eesti Keskerakond (Estonian Centre Party); Marju Lauristin who belongs to the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, comes from Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond (Estonia’s Social Democratic Party); and Indrek Tarand who in the European Parliament belongs to the group of Green / European Free Alliance, has in Estonia been an independent candidate.

Another comment may be that according to the study on how to create a transnational party system conducted by Directorate General of the European Parliament for internal policies, the presence of two or more national political parties within the same European Parliament group is considered to hinder the development of the European Union party system (European Parliament Directorate … 2010).


The article underlying my presentation explains political parties as a source of legitimacy in the European Union on three levels: first, the political parties of the Member States, second, the political parties at European level, and third, the political representation in the European Parliament. That way, the article discusses two level legitimacies – legitimacy of international organizations / institutions through national governments’ and direct legitimacy of international organizations / institutions.

The article does not explain other direct sources of legitimacy, such as the rising (new) political movements and groups instead of registered political parties, which is an emerging general trend in Europe, not aiming at participating in the procedures of formal governmental power but having developed substantial popular consent networks indicating social problems and reacting against those. Because political scientists (e.g. Heywood) distinguish between social (included political) movements and political parties. Maybe these movements and groups develop into new and more effective political parties.