Democracy Reporting International would like to thank Prof. Katrin Nyman-Metcalf from Tallinn University of Technology for assistance in preparing this report.
Estonia will hold its regularly scheduled parliamentary election on Sunday, 5 March, electing all 101 members of the Riigikogu, its one-chamber parliament. Estonia uses a proportional representation system with the electoral threshold required at 5%. Candidates can also be elected via preferential votes, even if the list they run from does not meet the electoral threshold.
The centrist Estonian Reform Party, led by current Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, leads the polls at 28%. They are followed by the right-wing Conservative People's Party of Estonia; centrist parties the Estonian Centre Party and Estonia 200; and the center-left Social Democratic Party. The Estonian political landscape heavily favours centrist parties with various slants (left-wing, right-wing, agrarian, liberal), moderate views, and strong pro-EU stance, with the notable exception of the Conservative Party of Estonia, which has displayed a soft Euroskepticism. Notably, no major Estonian political party positions itself as representing the country's significant Russian-speaking minority.
The rule of law in the campaign
The rule of law was not a key item in the programs and campaigns of major parties. With the country not experiencing any critical issues with the judiciary, the legality of authorities' actions or corruption, campaigning did not focus on these issues. Instead, the public debate has been strongly centered around the economy and challenges arising from the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war has placed Estonia in a particularly complicated situation given its border with Russia, its past as one of the Soviet republics, and substantial Russian-speaking minority that has been living in Estonia since Soviet times.
From the perspective of the rule of law challenges, it is important to note that Estonia is one of the pioneers in the digitalisation of public services, including the judiciary. Innovations such as digital court case files, widespread use of digital communication between courts and participants in proceedings and automation of fines collection are standouts within the EU; with few other Member States being so advanced in terms of implementing the concept of an “electronic country” in their justice systems.
The Riigikogu enjoys powers and competencies typical for a unicameral parliament in a parliamentary system: it's the primary lawmaker that is also tasked with appointing the head of the government (Prime Minister), the head of state (President) and also the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Estonia as well as the Chancellor of Justice (NHRI).
Key rule of law challenges in Estonia
Workload of judges: While Estonian judges rank highly in terms of their independence and lack of undue pressure on their work, caseload continues to be an increasing problem in the country. Estonian judges have raised concerns about the impact of the increased complexity of cases and their number coupled with an incoming “retirement wave”, as well as the prospect of problems in filling vacant positions on the efficiency of courts in the country.
Nepotism and conflicts of interest: Perceived levels of corruption in Estonia are low and beneath the EU average. According to 2022 Eurobarometer, just 43% of the public and 32% of businesses consider corruption widespread (EU averages are 68 % and 63 %, respectively). Despite the lack of classic corruption, instances of patronage and “friendly corruption”, similar to one perceived in Nordic states, persist. Conflict of interest and “revolving doors” between the government and business continue to be an issue, and the implementation of 2021 guidelines on conflicts of interest for ministers and their aides falls short. The Guidelines lack a strong follow-up and evaluation mechanism.
Expert recommendations to improve on the rule of law
- The Estonian government should provide adequate funding and staffing for the judiciary to ensure that judges aren’t saddled with excessive workloads. The digital tools introduced to aid the judiciary should, among other objectives, increase the efficiency of courts and lessen the burden on judges.
- Estonia should investigate the impact of patronage/nepotism issues. The Guidelines on Conflict of Interest should be enhanced with follow-up mechanisms and regular, actionable reviews of the conduct of government officials to minimise the “revolving door” issue.
Democracy Reporting International (DRI) works to improve public understanding of the rule of law in the EU as part of the re:constitution programme funded by Stiftung Mercator. Sign up for DRI’s newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to find out more about the rule of law in Europe.