Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Democratic institutions are strong in Estonia and political and civil rights are widely respected. The greatest challenges facing the democracy are ethnic tensions and economic inequality. About 7 percent of the country’s population remains stateless and thus may not participate in national elections.
Key developments in 2017:
- In October, the first local elections took place since the merging of municipalities reduced the total number of elected representatives by nearly half. The Center Party gained the most seats.
- In December, a tax reform was adopted that raised both the minimum wage for full-time workers and the amount of tax-free income for low- and middle-income earners, among other changes that aim to make the system more progressive.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 38 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The current prime minister, Jüri Ratas from the Center Party, was confirmed by the Riigikogu (parliament) following the formation of a coalition in 2016 between the Center Party and two minor partners—the center-left Social Democrats (SDE) and the conservative Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL). Ratas’s selection took place according to proper legal procedures.
The president is elected by parliamentary ballot to a five-year term, filling the largely ceremonial role of head of state. Current president Kersti Kaljulaid was elected as a nonpartisan consensus candidate after six rounds of voting in 2016. Although the overall election process was free and fair, it was criticized as too lengthy.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The constitution establishes a 101-seat unicameral parliament whose members are elected for four-year terms. The 2015 elections were free and fair.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
The legal framework for conducting elections is clear and detailed. Online voting is widespread. October 2017 municipal elections witnessed record turnout online, with 32 percent of participating voters using this method, thus demonstrating strong public confidence in the e-voting system.
Administrative reform in mid-2017 merged municipalities, reduced the number of electoral seats by almost half, and abolished the county level of administration. Upon review, the Supreme Court allowed the changes to stand.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Estonia’s political parties organize and operate freely. Party members may be citizens of Estonia or of another EU member state. The system is open to the rise and fall of different parties. For example, the 2015 election brought two new parties to power: the conservative, anti-establishment Free Party and the far-right Conservative People’s Party.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
The system is open to the rotation of power. In the 2015 elections, the center-right Reform Party, which had led the previous government, captured the most seats (30), and subsequently formed a coalition with its previous coalition partner, the SDE, as well as the IRL. In 2016, the Center Party, which held 27 seats, formed a new ruling coalition with the SDE and the IRL. The Center Party won local elections in October 2017.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
People’s political choices are not influenced by undemocratic forces. While the governing Center Party has not fully renounced its cooperation agreement with United Russia, the main political party in Russia, this has not led to foreign interference with Estonia’s political rights.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
The political rights of ethnic Russian residents of Estonia, about 7 percent of the population whose citizenship remains undetermined, face limitations on their political rights. Only citizens may participate in national elections, and while resident noncitizens are permitted to vote in local elections, they may not run as candidates. The authorities have adopted policies to assist those seeking naturalization. Although women only make up 27 percent of members of parliament, women’s interests are represented through a variety of programs and government initiatives.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT 11 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Both the government and the parliament are freely elected and function without interference from external or nonstate actors.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Recent years have seen heavily publicized allegations of corruption within the main political parties as well as in the public sector. The trial of Edgar Savisaar, former leader of the Center Party and Tallinn city mayor, is ongoing for charges of bribery, money laundering, and embezzlement. Other corruption scandals involving Center Party representatives continue to emerge, and the party itself is being investigated for accepting illegal donations. While the government has taken significant action toward curbing corruption according to Council of Europe anticorruption body GRECO, key shortcomings include various measures to prevent conflicts of interest among legislators. State companies have yet to improve their corruption prevention measures.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4
Estonia is well-known for its transparency and developed e-governance services. Public access to government information and asset declarations of officials is provided for both in law and in practice.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 56 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 16 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
The government generally respects freedom of the press. Public and private television and radio stations operate in Estonia, and there are a number of independent newspapers. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Religious freedom is respected in law and in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is respected. By law, public Russian-language high schools must teach 60 percent of their curriculum in the Estonian language, but this does not severely limit freedom.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Individuals are free to express political views without fear of surveillance or retribution.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the government upholds this right in practice.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
The government honors the civic rights of associations and does not restrict or control the activities of nongovernmental organizations.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
Workers may organize freely, strike, and bargain collectively, although public servants at the municipal and state levels may not strike.
F. RULE OF LAW: 14 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
The judiciary is independent and generally free from government interference.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4 (+1)
The legal process in civil and criminal matters is generally free and fair. Laws prohibiting arbitrary arrest and detention and ensuring the right to a fair trial are largely observed.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because legal processes are organized and orderly, and prosecutors and investigation authorities are generally not subject to political pressure.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4 (−1)
While Estonia is generally safe and peaceful, it has one of the highest intentional homicide rates in the European Union. There have been reports of law enforcement officials using excessive force when arresting suspects. Some inmates reportedly have inadequate access to health care. The incarceration rate is the seventh highest in the OECD.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to a relatively high homicide rate and because conditions in prisons and detention facilities remain inadequate.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Russian language speakers continue to face societal discrimination, which is reinforced by laws such as the Equal Treatment Act, which does not consider Estonian linguistic requirements for public officials as discriminatory. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is legally prohibited, though harassment of members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) communities is reportedly common.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS 14 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Citizens and residents enjoy free movement inside Estonia and to leave the country.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
Estonian residents enjoy strong property rights and can establish private businesses, although corruption in the business sector is sometimes a problem.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Violence against women, including domestic violence, remains a problem. As of year’s end, the Riigikogu still could not adopt necessary amendments to previous acts to fully implement a 2014 law permitting same-sex civil unions.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Russian speakers face discrimination when applying for jobs, especially in the public sector, due to strict language requirements. Women in Estonia earn on average 25 percent less than men, the largest gap in the European Union. Estonia is a source, transit point, and destination for women and girls trafficked for prostitution. The unemployment rate is low at 6 percent, but according to the European Commission about a quarter of the population was at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2016. A tax reform passed in December 2017 aims to make the system more progressive.