Relationship of the State and Political Parties in Estonia

Author:Ülle Madise
Position:Dr., Director of Audit National Audit Office of Estonia Member of the Estonian National Electoral Committee

1. Introduction - 2. Competition of political parties - 2.1. Requirement of 1000 members and publicising of membership - 2.2. Restrictions on submitting lists of candidates in electoral law - 2.3. Restrictions on election advertising - 2.4. Direct financing from the state budget - 3. Control of political parties' financing as a resource to ensure government in public interests - 3.1. Public... (see full summary)


Ülle Madise

Dr., Director of Audit National Audit Office of Estonia Member of the Estonian National Electoral Committee

Relationship of the State and Political Parties in Estonia

1. Introduction

I consider the relationship of the state and political parties of Estonia by raising the question of what the role of the state is - and could be - in regulating and ensuring competition between political parties, such that power is exercised in the public interest and not in return for donations or any other grants a political party might receive .

When speaking of the state I refer to the system of state authorities as a whole, especially the legislative body and court system. According to the Estonian Political Parties Act 1 , a political party is a registered legal entity, a not-for-profit association that has at least one thousand members who are citizens of Estonia or any other Member State of the European Union with a right to vote. This is a legal definition. There is, of course, a wider definition under which it is possible to treat other unions oriented to executing political power (e.g., election coalitions of citizens) as political parties. That the concept of a political party and the state's activities is, in fact, formed by political parties both by making laws and by distributing the taxpayers' money while being the decision-makers on their own matters, among other things, is intriguing.

Political life in Estonia is led by political parties, which correspond to a strict legal concept and are represented in Parliament (the Riigikogu), and which have this right in front of other political parties and unions by advantages given in electoral laws, laws on political parties, the state budget, etc. The question is whether these privileges are justified. Is the political party landscape too closed, and should competition be activated? Perhaps it is the opposite: maybe the state should take additional steps to make the political party landscape more stable, strengthen political responsibility, and decrease the number of political parties. Should coalitions of citizens be represented in political life through political parties and by single court cases initiated in open proceedings? Has the concept of involvement lost all of its respectable content both for the state and for the citizens, and should involving norm-setters in setting the norms be strongly encouraged? What does public servants' political independence mean, and how should it be ensured in practice? How should financing of political parties by private sources be restricted, or should it even be completely prohibited? Should we aim to disclose lists of businessmen and lobbyists who are friends of political parties? Will the listing of income and expenses of political parties suffice? How can we find out who does favours for whom, and for what? Is journalism so independent that we can rely on it to reveal connections of business and politics? Is the border between decisions made in public interests and in private interests more easily detectable than the boundary between legal and ordinary politics? These are not the only questions that arise concerning the relationship of the state and political parties.

2. Competition of political parties

Totally free competition of political parties would mean that establishment of political parties and obtaining of mandates in the representative body is, in a manner of speaking, artificially unrestricted by legal provisions: with no establishment restrictions, a threshold related to public support is not applied, establishment of factions in the representative body is not restricted, members of the parliament are not restricted from changing party affiliation, etc. In this scenario there are no measures implemented to ensure formal similarity of the prospect of being elected: each political party can nominate an unlimited number of candidates for elections, advertise freely, and so on. Unrestricted competition may result in a fragmented and unstable political party landscape and utter simplicity of evading accountability to election platforms and promises, or, in Estonian phrasing, insufficient political responsibility.

The following sections of the paper discuss the restrictions on free competition of political parties that are applicable in Estonia .

2.1. Requirement of 1000 members and publicising of membership

A political party is a not-for-profit association that is registered in a state register and has at least one thousand members who are citizens of Estonia or another Member State of the European Union and who do not belong to any other political parties registered in Estonia . Membership lists of political parties are made public on the Web site of the commercial register, at This characteristic distinguishing them from 'ordinary' not-for-profit associations is prescribed by § 28 (1) 28 of the Public Information Act2.

Both public and hidden election coalitions - the latter can be formed by allowing members of different parties to feature as candidates on one party's list - are prohibited in Riigikogu elections. In order to enforce this prohibition, the National Electoral Committee needs precise membership lists of political parties but not necessarily publicising of the membership lists. Publicising can be treated as a resource for checking the accuracy of the lists, but mandatory publishing of party membership lists can directly reduce the legitimacy of parties: the public nature of the information may inhibit people's willingness to join a certain party; moreover, there have been scandals concerning persons who have never joined a party and whose name nonetheless appeared on a party membership list3. The Web site of the commercial register has a search engine that enables easy determination of a person's membership in a political party.

On 10 July 2007, the information system of the commercial register showed the total number of people belonging to political parties as 51,012 and the number of people belonging to several parties being 483 (even though belonging to several political parties at once is, in fact, prohibited). By 1 November 2007 , the number of people belonging to several political parties at the same time had fallen to 128 and the total number of members of parties had increased by 363. Thus, less than 6% of people with a right to vote belong to Estonian political parties.

Table 1. Political parties in Estonia .

Political party Number of members (date) Results of the election in 2007:Votes (%), Riigikogu mandates
Estonian People's Union (Eestimaa Rahvaliit) 10,005 (9.05.2007) 39,315 (7.1%), 6
Estonian Centre Party (Eesti Keskerakond) 9,998 (18.01.2007) 143,518 (26.1%), 29
Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit) 8,676 (30.05.2007) 98,347 (17.9%), 19
Estonian Reform Party (Eesti Reformierakond) 6,294 (1.10.2007) 153,044 (27.8%), 31
Social-democratic Party (Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond) 3,262 (10.04.2007) 58,363 (10.6%), 10
Estonian Christian Democrats (Eesti Kristlikud Demokraadid) 2,117 (18.01.2007) 9,456 (1.7%), 0
Constitutional Party (Konstitutsioonierakond) 1,597 (18.01.2007) 5,464 (1%), 0
Farmers' Union (Põllumeeste Kogu) 1,434 (1.07.2007) Did not participate
Estonian Green Party 1,379 (30.08.2007) 39,279 (7.1%), 6
Russian Solidarity Party (Vene Ühtsuspartei) 1,314 (1.01.2002) Did not participate
Russian Party in Estonia (Vene Erakond Eestis) 1,189 (18.01.2007) 1,084 (0.2%), 0
Republican Party (Vabariiklik Partei) 1,058 (18.01.2007) Did not participate
Estonian Independence Party (Eesti Iseseisvuspartei) 1,011 (1.10.2007) 1,273 (0.2%), 0
Estonian Left Party (Eesti Vasakpartei) 1,041 (18.01.2007) 607 (0.1%), 0
Democrats - Estonian Democratic Party (Eesti Demokraatlik Partei) 1,000 (18.01.2007) Did not participate
Total 51,375 (1.10.2007)

The requirement for one thousand members undoubtedly consolidates the party landscape by preventing the emergence of regional and other small parties. Yet it constitutes a considerable restriction to the freedom of establishment. The number of citizens entitled to vote is approximately 900,000 dispersed over a territory of 45,227 km2. According to the data of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there are 227 local government units in Estonia , 181 of which have fewer than 5000 inhabitants (119 of these with fewer than 2000 residents).

As can be seen from Table 1, there are 15 political parties in total in Estonia , most of which have only a thousand members. The number of members of larger parties is increasing, and the number of members of smaller parties decreasing.

We can state on the basis of experience that, despite the 1000-member requirement, establishment of new parties in Parliament has been successful. In 2007, 61.91% of citizens entitled to vote, which is 550,213 citizens in total, participated in the elections of the XI Riigikogu. The Riigikogu mandates were gained by the five political parties with the largest membership and the Green Party established prior to the elections. A totally new party - Res Publica - emerged in the Riigikogu elections in 2003, gaining 24.6% of the votes and 28 mandates in the subsequent elections. In comparison of election results, this gave them second place after the Centre Party, which...

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