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Estonia - Politics

After the re-establishment of independence, national elections have been held on 20 September 1992, 5 March 1995, 7 March 1999, 2 March 2003, 4 March 2007, on 6 March 2011 and on 01 March 2015. The next regular elections will take place in 2019.

Estonia's post-Soviet political landscape has been characterized by youthful leadership. Beginning with the first post-independence Estonian government of Mart Laar in 1992 to the Andrus Ansip government elected in 2007 and Taavi Rivas selected in 2014, young and influential decision makers have been a common element of the Estonian political elite. Ushered into power through a policy designed to cleanse the political echelons of ties to its communist past, many of Estonia's current politicians have been in power since the early 1990s. Still young, many of these politicians are likely to remain as key figures for many years to come. At the same time, there are a number of note-worthy up-and- comers making their mark on Estonian politics.

In 1992, a constitutional assembly introduced amendments to the 1938 constitution. After the draft constitution was approved by popular referendum, it came into effect July 3, 1992. Estonia's new era of democratic politics began slowly in the 1990s with the adoption of a new constitution and the formation of stable political groupings. Several mechanisms in the constitution were beginning to function to ensure a balance of power and steady government. Citizenship issues, however, caused tensions among the country's 500,000-strong Russophone population, most of whom had been denied automatic citizenship rights in 1991. Their naturalization and integration into Estonian society remained a significant challenge.

The election in September 1992 of a new parliament, the Riigikogu, and the formal restoration of the Republic of Estonia marked the opening of a new political era. Not only was a new set of deputies elected, but Estonia took a further step in defining its political forces and developing a new political culture. As expected, right-wing parties did best in the electoral poll, promising "to clean house" and offer a fresh beginning after the Soviet era. The contest for the 101-seat Riigikogu yielded a three-party center-right coalition government holding fifty-two seats. The Fatherland Party (Isamaa) led the coalition with thirty seats, the Estonian National Independence Party (Eesti Rahvusliku Sltumatuse Partei) had ten seats, and the Moderates (Mdukad--made up of the Social Democratic Party and the Rural Center Party) had twelve seats. In opposition were the Coalition Party (Koonderakond), the Rural Union (Maaliit), the Estonian Center Party (Eesti Keskerakond), the Royalist Party (Rojalistlik Partei), and the Estonian Citizens Union (Eesti Kodanike Liit). Because noncitizens were not allowed to vote in the election, most of Estonia's Russian population was excluded from the poll. Consequently, the new Riigikogu was 100 percent ethnic Estonian.

The 1992 elections also saw a special contest for the largely ceremonial post of president, with Lennart Meri eventually emerging as victor. Lennart Meri served two terms as president, implementing many reforms during his tenure. Meri was constitutionally barred from a third term. Although the new constitution stipulates that the president shall be elected by the parliament, the Constitutional Assembly in early 1992 succumbed to popular pressure and agreed to have the country's first president elected by the people. In the resulting poll, the incumbent chairman of the parliament, Arnold Rtel, topped the list. But with only 41.8 percent of the vote, he did not muster the majority needed for direct election under the special rules. Although a former communist, Rtel had been widely admired for his steady, balanced leadership during the independence struggle. Yet, his electoral shortfall was enough to throw the final decision into the Riigikogu, where the runner-up, with 29.5 percent, Isamaa candidate and former foreign minister Lennart Meri, had the advantage. At the parliament's opening session on October 5, Meri defeated Rtel by a vote of fifty-nine to thirty-one.

In mid-October Mart Laar, the thirty-two-year-old chairman of Isamaa, was appointed prime minister by President Meri. The youngest person ever to hold that post, Laar promised immediately to expand Estonia's free-market reforms and defend Estonian national interests. During his first fourteen months in office, Laar cut tax rates and maintained control over expenditures. He also posted some foreign policy successes, such as Estonia's admission to the Council of Europe in May 1993. His cabinet, however, was plagued by inexperience. Four months into office, Laar's choice for economy minister resigned after accusations that he was not up to the job. In January 1993, the defense minister, an migr Estonian, Hain Rebas, caused a scandal when he allowed some 250 Russian soldiers to enter Estonia just as the country was negotiating their withdrawal with President Yeltsin. In August a mutiny by a handful of Estonian soldiers in western Estonia prompted Rebas to resign altogether. In December 1993, President Meri was obliged to dismiss Minister of Interior Lagle Parek, a longtime dissident during Soviet rule, for several scandals involving her management of ministerial affairs.

In June 1993, Laar's government suffered its greatest turmoil when a major political crisis erupted over passage of a law meant to regulate the status of noncitizens (mostly Russians) in the country. Russian groups criticized the 1993 Law on Aliens as discriminatory, and for the first time some of Estonia's key Western allies, including the United States, the Scandinavian states, and the European Union, raised objections. The Law on Aliens as originally adopted would have required all noncitizens to reapply for residency permits within two years without any guarantee of acceptance. In July, after President Meri vetoed the law and requested a review of it from the Council of Europe and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the Riigikogu agreed to amend the measure and guarantee most noncitizens new permits. The domestic crisis prompted President Meri to establish the Nationalities Roundtable for future discussion of minority affairs. The United States and Sweden immediately supported the roundtable with financial contributions to cover its operating costs. In the ensuing months, the roundtable met several times, but no major decisions were reached.

The results of Estonia's first post-Soviet local elections, held in October 1993, reflected public reaction to the government's series of setbacks and the continuing hardships caused by economic reform. In all the major cities, Isamaa did poorly. Former prime minister Tiit Vhi's Coalition Party was the big winner, especially in Tallinn, where it won eighteen of sixty-four seats. Russian parties also reemerged on the political scene, supported mostly by noncitizen voters, who, under a special constitutional provision, were allowed to vote. In Tallinn the moderate Russian Democratic Movement won eighteen seats. Despite this midterm upset and a continuing decline in public opinion polls, the Laar government later easily survived a vote of no confidence in parliament. In December it succeeded in passing a tax cut as well as a budget for 1994.

To shore up the Isamaa-led coalition, in January 1994 four key portfolios in the Council of Ministers (defense, economy, finance, and foreign affairs) were reshuffled. However, the coalition disintegrated in June 1994 after a series of embarrassments, most notably the allegation that the prime minister had been involved in the secret transfer of a large sum of Russian rubles to the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya in 1992. In September 1994, Laar lost a vote of no confidence in the Riigikogu. After President Meri's nomination of Bank of Estonia president Siim Kallas to succeed Laar was rejected, the Riigikogu confirmed Andres Tarand, the outgoing minister of environment, as prime minister in October. Tarand was to serve as a caretaker until the general elections in March 1995.

Nearly 70% of the electorate voted in parliamentary elections held March 5, 1995. The Coalition Party (former PM Vahi) and the Rural Union (ex-ESSR Chairman Ruutel)-"KMU"-garnered one-third of the vote for a plurality. The Reform Party (Estonian Bank Director Siim Kallas) got 16% of the vote, and the Centrist Party (former PM Savisaar) 14%. Pro Patria (former PM Laar) and the National Independence Party received 7%, the Moderates (acting PM Tarand) 6%, "Our Home is Estonia" (Russians) 6%, and the right-wingers (Riigikogu chairman Nugis) 5%. The new government, led once again by Tiit Vahi, has continued to pursue the same style of economic reform and Western integration that characterized Estonia since 1992.

Dissatisfaction among elderly and rural voters, who had yet to experience the benefits of Estonia's economic revival, was an important factor in that country's general election in March 1995. Political infighting and bitter disputes among members of former Prime Minister Mart Laar's government, as well as charges of corruption, were other reasons that many voters rejected the center-right grouping of the Fatherland Party (Isamaa) and the Estonian National Independence Party, which received less than 8 percent of the vote. With nearly one-third (32.2 percent) of the vote, the victorious center-left Coalition Party-Rural Union alliance, led by former Prime Minister Tiit Vhi, took forty-one of the parliament's 101 seats. Next came the staunchly pro-market Estonian Reform Party with 16.2 percent of the vote and the moderate Estonian Center Party with 14.2 percent. Six percent of the vote was garnered by Our Home is Estonia!, an alliance of two ethnic Russian parties. Thus, Estonia's Russophone community secured parliamentary representation.

After negotiating a coalition agreement with Edgar Savisaar, leader of the Estonian Center Party, Vhi was confirmed as prime minister in April and Savisaar became minister of interior. Although somewhat more mindful of the agrarian sector's concerns, the new government pursued policies essentially similar to those of its predecessor. In October, however, Savisaar was implicated in the bugging of conversations of several Estonian political leaders. Consequently, President Lennart Meri relieved Savisaar of his ministerial duties, and the government resigned. President Meri characterized the scandal as a crisis for democracy. Overcoming such crises posed yet another challenge for the nascent democratic institutions of the Baltic states.

With the August 1995 discovery that some Estonian politicians had been subjected to illegal surveillance, including wiretaps (referred to as Estonia's "Watergate"), the country faced its most severe political and constitutional test since regaining independence in 1991. After dismissing Interior Minister Edgar Savisaar for his implication in the scandal, Prime Minister Vahi submitted his cabinet's resignation. President Meri subsequently tapped Vahi to form a new coalition, which resulted in Vahi's alliance with the Reform Party. In meeting that test, Estonia again demonstrated that it is a normal democratic country based on rule of law and with a vibrant free press.

In 1996, Estonia ratified a border agreement with Latvia and completed work with Russia on a technical border agreement that Estonia is ready to sign. President Meri was re-elected in free and fair indirect elections in August and September. Free and fair nationwide municipal elections were held in October. In November, the Reform Party pulled out of the government when its majority partner, the Coalition Party, signed an agreement with the rival Center Party to cooperate in the municipal government councils. The Coalition Party survived the cabinet crisis as a minority government when the Prime Minister appointed several popular non-partisan candidates in ministerial posts.

During parliamentary elections in 1999, the seats in Riigikogu were divided as follows: the Center Party received 28, the Pro Patria Union 18, the Reform Party 18, the Moderates 17 seats. Pro Patria Union, the Reform Party, and the Moderates formed a government with Mart Laar as prime minister whereas the Center Party with the Coalition Party, People's Union, United People's Party, and Members of Parliament who were not members of factions formed the opposition in the Riigikogu.

In Fall 2001 Arnold Ruutel became the President of the Republic of Estonia. In January 2002 Prime Minister Laar stepped down and President Ruutel appointed Siim Kallas the new prime minister. The Reform Party and the Center Party formed a new coalition government in power January 28, 2002.

Since fully regaining independence, Estonia has had 10 governments with 7 different prime ministers elected: Mart Laar, Andres Tarand, Tiit Vahi, Mart Siimann, Siim Kallas, Juhan Parts, and Andrus Ansip. In March 2011 Ansip was reelected as Prime Minister. The Reform Party and the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union formed the majority government with 33 and 23 seats in parliament, respectively. Other parties in the parliament include the Center Party and the Social Democrat Party. Reform Party Chairman Andrus Ansip was the Prime Minister of the coalition government.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves became president in 2006. He was a member of the Social Democrat Party, a former Ambassador to the United States, two-time Minister of Foreign Affairs, a member of the Estonian parliament, and a former member of the European Parliament. President Ilves narrowly defeated incumbent Arnold Ruutel in an electoral-college vote in September 2006, and he took office on October 9, 2006.

As of 1 January 2006, the total population of Estonia was 1,345,000 persons, some 68 per cent of whom were Estonians and 32 per cent of other nationalities. The largest ethnic minority groups are Russians (25.7 per cent), Ukrainians (2.1 per cent), and Belarusians (1.2 per cent). Geographically, the minority population is concentrated in Tallinn, where they comprise 46 per cent of the population, Narva (95 per cent) and Kohtla-Jarve (82 per cent). Estonia has made efforts to integrate national minorities, including through a law on cultural autonomy. Most political parties are not formed on a national or ethnic basis but attempt to include minorities to various degrees.

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