ALAR KILP Government parties' defeat in European Parliament elections facilitating change in government

Alar Kilp
, political scientist and columnist
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform Party).
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform Party). Photo: Tairo Lutter
  • The opposition was successful in the European Parliament elections.
  • The Reform Party managed an average performance.
  • The weaker result could pave the way for a change in government.

Although the coalition parties did not suffer a significant defeat in the 2024 European Parliament elections – securing three seats instead of four, and with the Reform Party not far behind the Social Democrats (SDE) in the overall results – several noteworthy victories were nonetheless claimed by the opposition, political scientist Alar Kilp writes.

Isamaa achieved its best result ever, securing 21.5 percent of the votes, surpassing their previous best of 13.9 percent in 2014, or 17.2 percent if we combine the results of Isamaa and Res Publica from 2004. EKRE's performance has also been on the rise, with this year's 14.9 percent exceeding their previous best of 12.7 percent in 2019. The opposition as a whole garnered 48.8 percent of the votes (excluding the Right-wingers party and other non-parliamentary parties), compared to the government coalition's 39.8 percent.

The Reform Party's result (17.9 percent) is the best the party has achieved without Andrus Ansip, but it is more than six percentage points lower than the results that were garnered when Ansip stood for election (24.3 percent in 2014 and 26.2 percent in 2019). The Social Democrats performed slightly worse than last time (with a result four percentage points lower) and only almost half as well as their best performance (36.8 percent in 2004). However, they lost the least among the coalition parties and are not currently facing a leadership change.

In the situation where Estonia 200 currently stands (at 2.6 percent, with the party garnering fewer votes than Aivo Peterson alone) together with its leader (Margus Tsahkna placed fifth on the party's ticket, although his result was on a par with those of his fellow party members), parties usually consider a leadership change. The leader would not need much justification for resigning at this point.

The Reform Party's result (17.9 percent) is the best the party has achieved without Andrus Ansip, but it is more than six percentage points lower than the results that were garnered when Ansip stood for election.

In a comparison of five elections, the Reform Party managed an average performance, and in the two instances when the result was even worse, the then party leader Andrus Ansip either continued as prime minister without any issues (with a result of 15.3 percent in 2009, after which Ansip's second government lasted until the next elections) or became prime minister after a while (in 2004, the result was 12.2 percent, and ten months later Juhan Parts' government collapsed, and Ansip formed his first government with the Center Party and People's Union of Estonia).

Although there is no direct correlation between the European Parliament election results and the collapse or formation of governments (losing or gaining the prime minister's position), this time, the elections took place against the backdrop of a potential prime ministerial change that has been in the air for almost a year. Additionally, the coalition parties' ratings have consistently been lower than those of the opposition parties.

For this reason, Meelis Oidsalu assessed Hanno Pevkur's election result from the perspective of leadership change and noted that a relatively poor result might negatively impact Pevkur's chances of running for leader. However, Hanno Pevkur's result was 3.5 times better (with 9,390 votes) than the previous time (2,646 votes) and was the second-best in the party list. This result seems poor only if he is viewed as a potential new head of government.

Thus, it appears that the European Parliament elections provide a favorable opportunity for both government change and leadership change within two coalition parties. How have the failures of coalition parties in European Parliament elections previously affected government changes?

Earlier results indicate that opposition parties generally win the European Parliament elections, and this time the difference in results (9 percentage points) is actually smaller than the average (the median difference being 12.1 percentage points). Only once (in 2014) has the coalition been more successful than the opposition, and even then, very narrowly (the difference in results was 1.6 percentage points).

In the 2004 elections, the difference in results was overwhelmingly in favor of the opposition (the opposition received 64 percent and the coalition 27 percent of the votes). Juhan Parts' government fell ten months later, not so much due to the opposition parties' better performance in the European Parliament elections, but mainly due to the drastic decline in Res Publica's overall rating and the party's poor performance in the European Parliament elections as part of this. The overwhelming winners of those elections, the Social Democrats (with 36.8 percent), remained in opposition until the next parliamentary elections.

In 2009 and 2019, the losses of coalition parties to parliamentary opposition parties were greater than this year. However, despite this, the government persisted until the next elections (Ansip's second government) or for about 21 months (Jüri Ratas' second government). The results of the European Parliament elections were not pivotal in the persistence of the former government or the dissolution of the latter.

The government parties losing to the opposition parties in the 2024 European Parliament elections is too small a factor to draw conclusions about the duration of Kaja Kallas' third government. However, the elections took place with the question of changing the prime minister having been in the air for some time, so the election results further shape and confirm the backdrop against which it would be easier to explain the change of party leaders and government, making it more logical to rather expect it this summer than next winter. The loss allows for a more relaxed evaluation of whether to continue with the current leadership or to consider a change.