Consolidated Democracy
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 83.33 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 6.00 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
84 100 Consolidated Democracy
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic. See the methodology.

header1 Score changes in 2022

  • Corruption rating declined from 5.25 to 5.00 due to the return of the Center Party to government shortly after the party was indicted for improperly influencing the distribution of COVID-19 relief funds, thereby contributing to the normalization of a culture of corruption.
  • As a result, Estonia’s Democracy Score declined from 6.04 to 6.00.

header2 Executive Summary

With the government change in early 2021, Estonia’s political situation normalized after two tumultuous years. The media are free in Estonia and civil rights are respected. The judicial system continued to operate effectively during the pandemic due to high levels of digitalization. Local municipal council elections demonstrated that electoral processes function well; the number of votes cast online reached an all-time high since 2005 when it was first introduced. The presidential election in the parliament, on the other hand, showed that the current system of electing the non-executive head of state needs reviewing. Although levels of corruption remain lower in Estonia compared to other post-communist countries, corruption is still deeply integrated into the political system, both at the national and local levels. High-profile corruption scandals have had limited political ramifications, pointing to shortcomings in patterns of accountability.

The year started with a government collapse when Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center Party) announced his resignation on January 13, 2021, as a result of the corruption investigation into alleged misuse of pandemic-related relief funds. Tensions between the coalition partners—Center Party, Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), and Isamaa—also contributed to the decision. According to the constitution, when the prime minister resigns, the whole government must as well. Just hours after stepping down, however, Center was invited into negotiations by Kaja Kallas, chair of the Reform Party that won the 2019 general elections, who was tasked with forming a new government. The new coalition can be characterized as liberal, but the inclusion of Center—a party with very serious corruption allegations—sent a strong signal that shady dealings are not fully condemned in Estonian politics. Given that the now ruling Reform Party had alternative options in forming the government, this move indicates a level of impunity and normalization of political corruption, and apathy towards corruption in the society. On a broader scale, the Center corruption scandal points to structural problems in the country’s party financing. Political parties are disproportionally dependent on large donations from wealthy contributors, which provides favorable conditions for intertwining business and politics. Therefore, rules regarding party financing need revision in order to restore political trust and credibility.

The new government’s key challenge in 2021 was the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. After relative success in tackling the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, the second wave peaking in spring 2021 and the third in fall 2021 hit the nation considerably harder in terms of the number of cases and deaths, revealing major weaknesses in the capacity of the medical sector. However, the state’s coronavirus measures remained among the mildest in Europe.1 Unlike the first wave of the pandemic, an emergency situation was not declared in 2021, and the government response was characterized by vague communication and hesitancy to implement harsh measures. In the fall, tougher restrictions were introduced only after the conclusion of the October municipal elections, suggesting that crisis management was put on hold for political considerations. The government’s immunization strategy was similarly lacking, since by the end of the year only 61.7 percent of Estonia’s population was fully vaccinated against COVID-19.2 Public willingness to get vaccinated was lowest among the country’s Russian-speaking population, despite the fact that Ida-Viru County, the largest Russian-speaking geographical region, was the epicenter of coronavirus cases throughout the pandemic. Lower levels of compliance among Russian speakers may be attributed partly to socioeconomic and health inequities but also are due to a lack of political trust. The coronavirus issue was heavily politicized by the radical-right EKRE, whose conservative supporters were skeptical of the health risks and less likely to adhere to social distancing, masking, and vaccination protocols. Corona skeptics and anti-vaxxers were mostly active online, but a few anti-restriction and anti-vaccination demonstrations also took place. The largest was held in the capital Tallinn on October 23 and attracted several thousand people. This protest was organized by a conservative nongovernmental organization (NGO) associated with EKRE and created societal backlash, given that it took place when the medical system was on the verge of collapse.

Public dissatisfaction with the government’s management of the health crisis was reflected in shrinking support for the governing parties.3 Incumbent popularity suffered another hit when electricity prices rose to record highs in the fall due to insufficient capacity in the energy market. Rattled by the crises, as well as by frictions between and within the coalition partners, the government ended the year with uncertainty over its longevity. This fed the ratings of populist EKRE, which, after being forced into opposition in the beginning of the year, continued its confrontational style and became a vocal critic of government policy. EKRE made use of the pandemic by taking a clear anti-establishment stance to mobilize alienated population groups with low political trust. The party repeatedly discounted science in pursuit of its political objectives, called for civil disobedience against mandatory restrictions, which it labeled violations of freedom, and even called for overthrowing the democratically elected government.4 Siding with anti-vaxxers and anti-restriction protesters secured EKRE a solid second place in opinion polls and, according to some, even the position of most popular party in Estonia for a brief period.5 Ahead of the local elections in October, EKRE worked to sway the votes of Russian speakers.6 Despite its deeply nationalist ideology, the party’s conservative positions—objecting to same-sex marriage, for example—appeal to some members of the Russian-speaking community. EKRE’s other messages to this electorate include opposition to NATO and the green energy transition, the latter especially salient in the country’s eastern region that relies heavily on the shale oil industry for jobs and wages. Yet EKRE’s efforts did not translate into votes; while showing a strong performance in Estonian-populated rural areas, the party failed to mobilize the Russian vote, particularly in the eastern region of the country.

The October elections results showed several positive developments in local democratic governance in Estonia and also provided a few indications of future politics. Single-party rule in some of the country’s major cities was broken after the Center Party’s long reign. In combination with the relative success of EKRE and a strong entry by newcomer Eesti 200, the results indicated that the long-frozen political landscape had begun to favor smaller anti-establishment parties. These forces are reshaping the country’s political cleavages in line with the value conflict dominant in Western politics. Smaller parties have improved their organizational capacity in smaller communities, laying a solid groundwork for success in the national elections in 2023. The struggle for “Russian votes” continues, but unless strong local leaders speak up for local interests (as in Tallinn), it is difficult to secure the trust of population segments that are socioeconomically disadvantaged and have long felt alienated. Still, without the support of Russian speakers, parties will be unable to achieve significant electoral gains in the near future.

header3 At a Glance

In Estonia, national governance is democratic, but institutional oversight suffered somewhat during the pandemic crisis. Elections are free and fair, but the country’s system of electing the president—a non-executive, ceremonial head of state—continues to demonstrate problems. The civic sector is increasingly active, but antidemocratic illiberal groups are also gaining visibility. Media operate freely although fail in large part to reach the Russian-speaking population. Local democratic governance has a strong nonpartisan dimension, yet in larger municipalities the dominance of mainstream parties is slow to disappear. The judicial system is independent and effective, while shortcomings exist in the treatment of suspects. The country has made progress in fighting corruption; even so, buying off politicians through party donations remains a significant issue.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 5.756 7.007
  • The year 2021 in Estonia began with an abrupt collapse of the coalition government when Prime Minister Jüri Ratas announced his resignation on January 13 over a corruption scandal involving his Center Party.1 Found guilty of misdeeds in several previous incidents,2 Center was again accused of corruption, this time for involvement in granting a €39-million loan on questionable terms to a real estate development in the capital Tallinn. While Ratas himself was not subject to the investigations, he faced pressure to step down as party chairman along with four high-profile party members.
  • The government’s resignation came just one day before the parliament was due to vote on a proposal for a national referendum on the definition of marriage scheduled in the spring. The marriage referendum was one of the right-wing EKRE party’s central electoral promises and the foundation of its anti-LGBT+ rights agenda. The cancellation of the referendum3 cooled the intense debate over LGBT+ rights, although EKRE maintained its policy position.
  • A new governing coalition was formed by the center-right Reform Party, whose leader Kaja Kallas became Estonia’s first female prime minister; as a result, Estonia also became the only country in the world led by two elected women. There are also a record number of female cabinet members (7 out of 15).4 However, the new executive faced immediate criticism over the decision to include the Center Party as its junior partner in order to achieve a parliamentary majority, despite Center’s long list of corrupt affairs and the ongoing investigation.5 Former prime minister Ratas was elected speaker of the Riigikogu (State Assembly), Estonia’s 101-seat unicameral parliament.
  • The biggest challenge for the Kallas government in 2021 was the COVID-19 crisis. Devastating case numbers and a struggling medical sector forced the government to introduce new restrictions in the spring and fall, although a full lockdown was never declared. Despite these efforts, Estonia topped the list of countries with high infection rates, due largely to the slow pace of vaccination.6 7 The national strategy was hampered by managerial and organizational issues,8 ideological differences between coalition partners,9 and the political decision to put crisis management on hold in order to focus on local elections.10 In spite of mounting pressure, Health Minister Tanel Kiik (Center) refused to take responsibility for mishandling the crisis,11 although two other high-profile health officials were forced to resign.12 13 Public dissatisfaction with the government’s performance led to a steady decline in Reform Party ratings.14 The government’s popularity suffered an additional hit in the fall when electricity prices rose to record highs following the insufficient capacity to generate electricity in the NordPool energy market.15
  • Throughout the health crisis, the Riigikogu was passive vis-à-vis the executive.16 17 18 Estonia’s parliament is the country’s highest directly elected body, integral to the decision-making process and providing institutional checks and balances. In the crisis context, however, the government was able to enforce regulations and restrictions without time limits or legislative oversight. Often, these decisions were announced with short notice and no public debate.
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 6.507 7.007
  • The 2021 presidential election took place in Estonia in August. Since the country’s president is elected indirectly, the poll received limited attention compared to other elections. Interest in running for president was also low; potential candidates were proposed very late in the process, and only one candidate was officially nominated. On August 31, the parliament elected Alar Karis in the second round of voting.1 A scientist by trade, Karis had not previously been active in politics but served as auditor general in 2013–18. The electoral procedure was criticized for its reported uncertainty and political game-playing, which distances citizens from the selection process and undermines institutional legitimacy.2 3 4
  • Municipal elections took place in October. In Estonia, local municipal councils are elected every four years, and several electoral changes were introduced in 2021.5 First, the time of voting was compressed to one week, consisting of six early voting days and election day. Electronic voting was available during the early voting period. Previously, electronic voting opened earlier and closed a few days before the election. Second, an electronic voter list was introduced, making the process paper-free and enabling individuals to cast their vote in any polling station in the electoral district. Polling stations fell under similar COVID-19 safety requirements as other public places, asking voters to wear masks, maintain social distance, and disinfect hands. Those in self-isolation were able to vote online or request that the ballot box be brought to their location.
  • For the first time, political parties were allowed to campaign on election day, after the ban on outdoor political advertising on election day was cancelled in 2019. Political ads are still banned from polling stations.6 The aim of these changes is to harmonize campaigning rules wherein a large number of people cast their votes during the early voting period, when active campaigning is allowed. Election advertising has also largely moved online where it is difficult to regulate.
  • The overall voter turnout of 54.7 percent7 was similar to previous municipal elections (53.3 percent in 2017) despite the pandemic. A wider population is eligible to vote in municipal elections since the right to vote extends to all permanent residents, not just Estonian citizens. Participation rates are traditionally lowest in Ida-Viru County (47.3 per cent in 2021), indicating weak integration of the Russian minority.
  • Overall, 273,620 votes were cast online, representing 46.8 percent, a higher rate than in previous elections.8 A minor hiccup occurred when the automatic translation app added to certain web browsers distorted the names of some candidates, translating them from Estonian to English. This led EKRE, known for its skepticism towards digital voting, to appeal to annul the e-votes. The complaint was dismissed.9
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 6.256 7.007
  • Estonia’s nonprofit sector is sustainable, and civil society is vibrant. The number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has steadily grown over time.1 Protest actions—including demonstrations, pickets, marches, signature gathering, and so forth, numbering roughly 60 activities per year—nearly doubled in 2021.2 Online, a record number of civic initiatives were signed during the year via the Citizen Initiative Portal, addressing petitions to the state as well as local authorities.3 A long-term Cohesive Estonia Development Plan for 2021–30 was approved that, among other things, focuses on strengthening civil society.4 However, illiberal movements are also on the rise.
  • The year’s larger demonstrations protested the government’s COVID-19 measures and took place at the height of the second5 6 and third7 waves of the pandemic. The October 23 protest in Tallinn—held just days after Estonia’s largest hospitals suspended regular services8 —attracted thousands of corona skeptics who rallied against “compulsory vaccination” and government restrictions. The event was organized by the Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition (SAPTK), a socially conservative NGO that often acts in cooperation with EKRE to focus on so-called traditional family values. However, EKRE’s participation at the anti-vax protest at the peak of the pandemic led to several members quitting the party.9
  • Coronavirus was heavily politicized in Estonia and mobilized primarily by EKRE, whose ratings benefitted from the sharp societal division around the issue.10 Anti-restriction demonstrators often utilized patriotic symbols, presenting restraints and vaccination as a question of freedom and even hijacking the historical commemoration Baltic Way,11 but the stirring up of social conflict was also associated with Russian Federation influence. Some protesters were linked to the Kremlin,12 13 and Russian misinformation was widely present on social media.14
  • The increase in protests during the year initiated public discussion over the appropriate use of force at such events. There was a relatively strong law-enforcement reaction to a series of demonstrations in front of the parliament building in April, bringing out a higher number of police officers and dispersing protesters who failed to follow distancing rules. Several people were detained.15 Although authorities assured that the severity of the response was based on risk assessment by the Internal Security Service,16 this reaction gave opposition forces a reason to accuse police of using undue force.17 Experts had differing opinions on the proportionality of the police response.18 19
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 6.256 7.007
  • Media companies in Estonia have been going through a digital transformation, significantly sped up by the COVID-19 crisis and resultant decline in advertising revenues. Media outlets cut wages and laid off employees, while establishing remote work processes, developing digital tools, and so forth.1 At the same time, digital subscriptions have skyrocketed, solidifying the overall trend of consuming news online. The largest daily, Postimees, decided to stop publishing its circulation numbers,2 which hints at the shrinking print run.3
  • The pandemic also impacted media content. Amid deep polarization on coronavirus and vaccination issues, Ekspress Meedia decided to turn off commenting on all Covid-related stories in its digital outlets in order to “strip all anti-vaxxers, corona-deniers, and provocateurs of the option to ridicule the role of vaccines in solving the greatest crisis of our times.”4
  • Russian-language media remains relatively weak in Estonia, competing with major commercial channels of the Russian Federation for its audience. The viewership of Estonia’s only Russian-language TV-channel, ETV+, hovered around 1.3–2.8 percent of the daily share in 2021,5 although viewership increased during the peaks of the pandemic.6
  • In an attempt to sway Russian-speaking voters, a Russian-language version of the Objektiiv portal was launched by a family-values NGO that lobbies for EKRE.7 The portal has been active in Estonia since 2015 and is known for feeding confrontation and spreading radical messages that often originate from questionable sources. In the run-up to the 2021 local elections, the Russian-language version often promoted coronavirus and vaccine skepticism8 9 and criticized the government’s crisis measures.10 11
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 5.756 7.007
  • Estonia is a country with vertical dispersion of authority, therefore the central government took the lead in managing the COVID-19 crisis. To alleviate the pandemic-related pressures on local governments, municipalities were allocated nearly €182 million in 2020 and 2021 as crisis support. According to the National Audit Office, this money was distributed without assessing the varying local effects of the crisis, and portions intended for economic recovery were delayed.1
  • On October 17, 2021, municipal elections were held in Estonia. The campaign focused on local issues rather than national-level conflicts. Electoral promises addressed the well-being of residents in municipalities, the quality of local governance, education, and so forth. The Center Party received the most votes in the elections nationwide (24.4 percent, down from 27.3 percent in 2017),2 but the party lost its absolute majority in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital and largest municipality, which it had held in the city council since 2005. Competitor campaigns focused directly on overturning this long-standing rule, overshadowing substantive programmatic issues. Despite the party’s council loss, incumbent mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) gained 20,070 votes, the largest mandate in the country by far.3 This Russian-speaking mayor of Tallinn is extremely popular among the city’s large Russian minority.4 After forming a coalition with a junior partner, Center kept its dominant position in Tallinn politics. Nevertheless, breaking its prolonged rule in some major cities—Tallinn, Narva, and Kohtla-Järve—shook up the country’s long-frozen political landscape.
  • Local electoral alliances are seen as the big winner of the 2021 elections (26.8 percent, up from 24.3 percent in 2017). Electoral alliances contest in specific municipalities and focus on local issues. They form an alternative to mainstream parties, although they often contain members with partisan backgrounds. Out of all candidates in 2021, 36.5 percent ran on electoral alliance lists.5 The most successful, the electoral list of Social Democrat Katri Raik, ran in the Eastern border city of Narva and pushed the Center Party from power. The popularity of alliances demonstrates that local and national politics have separate dynamics, and that local governance is conducted somewhat independently from partisan politics. Increased local political competition, especially in some of the more peripheral parts of the country, also implies a slight improvement in the decentralization of power. At the same time, electoral alliances operate under unequal terms compared to political parties, given that they are not subject to state funding. The parliament attempted to ban electoral alliances in 2001 and 2005, but the Supreme Court declared the act void in both instances.6 7
  • The Reform Party (led nationally by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas) won 17.3 percent of votes nationwide, which is less than four years ago (19.5 percent in 2017). The far-right populist EKRE doubled its vote share compared to the last elections (13.2 percent in 2021; 6.7 percent in 2017), but the results were underwhelming considering its highest-ever support ratings ahead of the elections.8 A strong entrance was made by Eesti 200, which competed in local elections for the first time and gained 6 percent of the vote.
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 6.507 7.007
  • Estonia’s court system continued to function normally in 2021 despite the pandemic. Courts were able to rely on electronic means, although the time taken for proceedings increased somewhat.1
  • The court system adopted digitalization during the year, and in April, the Justice Ministry submitted a bill to allow criminal proceedings to go fully digital. Materials will be maintained in an e-file system, and the exchange of information in criminal proceedings will take place primarily in a digital form. Requirements for recording procedural acts will be simplified, and audio and video recordings will be encouraged. Similar changes will be made to the code of misdemeanor procedure. The bill includes a list of other changes, including eliminating duplicate activities in gathering and formalizing evidence, clarifying the role of the court during preliminary investigations, widening the range of preventive measures alongside arrest, and extending opportunities to avoid initiating or terminating criminal proceedings in situations where there is no public interest.2
  • Another development that potentially influences future criminal proceedings is the bill that passed the first reading in the Riigikogu in May, which requires prosecutors to obtain the court’s permission for inquiries into communications data collected in criminal cases.3 The bill came up after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in a theft case where the investigating authority had access to case data, which the ECJ found incompatible with EU law.4
  • In February, the European Commission (EC) launched infringement proceedings against Estonia, Finland, and Poland for “failing to fully transpose the EU rules on strengthening the presumption of innocence and the right to be present at the trial in criminal proceedings.”5 The EC found that these countries have only partially transposed the directive,6 which is an important element of EU standards for fair trial. The EC pointed to public authorities who have prematurely or falsely made references to guilt, and the lack of appropriate measures available in those instances.
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 5.005 7.007
  • In 2021, Estonia continued to take steps forward in fighting corruption. An extensive anticorruption action plan for 2021–25 was adopted,1 together with new guidelines on lobbying and conflicts of interest. Most public offices are now asked to publish information on meetings with lobbyists on a quarterly basis. For the first time, whistleblower protection was also included in the action plan,2 but delays in its adoption into law resulted in an infringement procedure by the European Commission.3
  • Despite these improvements, corruption remains embedded in the political system. In January, the second government of Jüri Ratas (Center) was forced to step down amid a corruption scandal related to the COVID-19 extraordinary crisis support: In 2020, the state-owned credit agency Kredex had provided loans and guarantees to enterprises affected by the pandemic. Late that year, the National Audit Office found that the objectives for allocating these loans and guarantees were vague, especially in the criteria for what constitutes “a project of national importance.”4 The allocation of tens of millions of euros to large companies, such as the shipping company Tallink and the real-estate development Porto Franco, according to questionable selection criteria led to significant criticism, including suspicions that the government had rewarded friends, loyalists, and party donors. In January 2021, the Public Prosecutor’s Office pressed charges against the Center Party and five individuals, including the party’s secretary-general, Mihhail Korb, for criminal involvement in the Porto Franco case. According to the allegations, the real-estate development was promised permission to build a road on city property in exchange for a donation of up to €1 million to the party ahead of the municipal elections.5 The corruption scandal brought down the prime minister and government, but less than 24 hours later, Center was invited to be a part of the next coalition. This signals that political corruption is taken lightly,6 especially since Center was represented in the coalition negotiations by a leading member, Mailis Reps, who herself was subject to investigation over misuse of public funds.7 It is noteworthy that in 2020, the Center Party initiated termination of the Political Party Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK), an independent body that monitors party financing. Although the bill was later withdrawn,8 this indicates an attempt to blur the transparency of party funding.
  • Altogether, these developments point to structural problems with political financing in Estonia. Political parties may receive income from four sources: allocations from the state budget, donations from private individuals, membership fees, and transactions with party property. State support constitutes the largest source of revenue by far,9 but the rates have changed little over the past decade while expenses have increased. Income from membership fees and assets is marginal, leaving parties largely dependent on donations, mostly from prominent entrepreneurs,10 which encourages corruptive activities.

Author: Liisa Talving, PhD, is a Research Fellow in Comparative Politics at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia. Her areas of research include electoral studies, voting behavior, and public opinion.

On Estonia

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  • Global Freedom Score

    94 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    93 100 free