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Preliminary statement of the WEST SUPPORT on the Parliamentary elections in Estonia, 03/05/2023

This statement is preliminary; a final report will be published several months after the end of the electoral process.

On March 5, 2023, elections were held in Estonia for the Riigikogu - the unicameral legislative body (parliament) of the Republic of Estonia. The parliamentary election campaign in Estonia began on November 28, 2022, following the signing of a corresponding decree on elections by the President of Estonia, Alar Karis.

101 members of the Riigikogu are elected by a proportional system in twelve multi-mandate constituencies. Seats are allocated using the modified D'Hondt method. Parties must overcome the nationwide barrier of 5%, but if the number of votes cast for an individual candidate exceeds or equals the simple quota (obtained by dividing the number of valid votes cast in the constituency by the number of mandates in the constituency), they are elected.

This year, 9 political parties and 10 independent candidates competed for seats in the parliament in 12 electoral districts. At the invitation of the State Electoral Office, the international observation mission of the human rights agency WEST SUPPORT took part in the parliamentary elections in Estonia for a short-term mandate from March 3 to March 5, 2023.

As part of the program for international visitors proposed by the State Electoral Office, mission observers visited 18 polling stations, the vote counting center at the Sole polling station (Tallinn), and the electronic vote counting center.


Legal Framework

The preparation and conduct of parliamentary elections in Estonia are regulated by the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia of 1992, the Riigikogu Election Act of 2002 (as amended on 01.01.2021), as well as acts adopted by the State Electoral Office and the Estonian National Electoral Committee in accordance with them.


Election Administration

In accordance with the Riigikogu Election Act, the conduct of parliamentary elections in Estonia is ensured within their competence by the Estonian National Electoral Committee, the State Electoral Office, rural and urban secretaries, precinct electoral committees, and counting committees.

The Estonian National Electoral Committee is composed of seven members appointed for a term of four years. The Estonian National Electoral Committee consists of:

  • a judge of the court of first instance appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court;

  • a judge of the court of second instance appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court;

  • a legal adviser to the Chancellor of Justice appointed by the Chancellor of Justice;

  • an official of the State Audit Office appointed by the Auditor General;

  • a prosecutor appointed by the Prosecutor General;

  • an official of the Government Office appointed by the Secretary of State;

  • an auditor of information systems appointed by the board of the Association of Estonian Auditors.

The main tasks of the Estonian National Electoral Committee are to ensure the observance of constitutional principles of conducting elections, to establish the results of voting and election results throughout the country, and to supervise the activities of election officials.

The State Electoral Office is a structural unit of the Riigikogu Chancellery, which is independent in performing the functions arising from the Riigikogu Election Act. Its main functions are to ensure the conduct of elections in accordance with the law, to organize electronic voting and establish the results of electronic voting; to monitor the activities of election managers; to organize the development and management of technical solutions necessary for the performance of electoral acts.

Rural or urban secretaries are responsible for the direct organization of elections in the rural district or city. To perform their functions, rural or urban secretaries are empowered to issue mandatory orders to precinct electoral committees, to decide on the expenses of precinct electoral committees, and to perform other functions prescribed by law.

Precinct electoral committees are formed for the organization of voting in precincts, and counting committees are formed for the counting of votes in precincts.

For the conduct of voting in an electoral district, the respective city council forms precinct election commissions consisting of no less than five individuals, taking into account the principle of political balance. Half of the members of the precinct commission are delegated by the electoral or city secretary, and the rest are political parties participating in the elections.

In the Riigikogu elections, the territory of Estonia is divided into 12 electoral districts, within which a total of 405 polling stations have been formed for the year 2023.


Voter Registration

According to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia, the supreme power in the Republic of Estonia belongs to the people, who exercise their power through citizens with the right to vote by electing the Riigikogu.

Citizens of Estonia who have reached the age of 18 by the day of the elections have the right to vote, except for those who are deprived of their right to vote and those who have been convicted by a court for committing a criminal offense and are serving a sentence of imprisonment.

The voters are registered in the Estonian Population Register, and the voter list is compiled based on the data in the Population Register. To be included in the voter list, a person who has the right to vote must provide their address of residence to the Population Register.

Since 2021, Estonia has introduced an electronic voter list, which means that voters are no longer tied to specific polling stations. The right to vote is verified by the electronic voter list directly at the polling stations for voting.

If a person's address of residence is not entered into the Population Register, they can submit a notification of their place of residence to the Population Register in writing or in electronic form.

Thus, voters residing in Estonia and voters residing abroad are now included in a single list of voters. Additionally, if a voter who resides abroad is in Estonia during the election week, they can vote at the corresponding polling station.

A single list of voters also means that voter turnout is calculated based on the total number of voters included in the list (Estonian voters + voters who permanently reside abroad).

In the 2023 Riigikogu elections, 966,129 voters were registered.

During observations at polling stations, it was established that the members of the precinct election commissions carefully verified the identity of each voter before issuing them with ballots. There were no cases of voters being prevented from voting.



Candidate Registrations

An Estonian citizen can run for elections to the Riigikogu if they have turned 21 years old by the last day of candidate registration (January 24, 2023), are not deprived of their electoral capacity, are not on active duty in the defense forces, have not been convicted of a criminal offense and are not serving a prison sentence.

Political parties registered as non-profit associations and funds at least 90 days before election day (no later than December 2, 2022) and independent candidates can participate in the elections.

An individual can only run in one location, meaning they are not allowed to run simultaneously in multiple constituencies or on candidate lists from multiple political parties.

A political party submits a district list of candidates for each electoral district. The order of candidates on the list is determined by the political party. The number of candidates in an electoral district can exceed the number of mandates in the electoral district by no more than two candidates, and the maximum number of candidates in the party's nationwide list is 125. In the national list of candidates, all candidates nominated in the electoral district are ranked by the party. The national list forms the basis for the distribution of compensatory mandates.

Any person who has the right to run for office can register as an independent candidate and complete the necessary procedures for registration. Any person who has the right to vote can provide a power of attorney to register an independent candidate and complete the necessary procedures for registration.

Before submitting candidates for registration, a party or independent candidate must deposit a security on the Ministry of Finance's account. The amount of the security for one candidate is 654 euros. If a party represents the maximum number of candidates in all constituencies (125), it must pay a security deposit of 81,750 euros.

In the Riigikogu 2023 elections, the distribution of candidates by party affiliation and constituencies is as follows:


Voting

The week of elections to the Riigikogu begins on Monday, February 27, 2023, consisting of six days of advance voting and ending with the election day on March 5, 2023. Voting in foreign representations of Estonia will take place from February 18 to February 23. It is also possible to vote by mail abroad. In order to vote by mail, the voter must submit a written application to the foreign representation no later than February 3, 2023.

During the period from February 27 to March 4, 2023, voters can also vote electronically in addition to using traditional paper ballots. As the voter is no longer tied to a specific polling station based on their place of residence, they can choose their preferred polling station within their electoral district.

Voting on election day, March 5, 2023, begins at 9:00 am and ends at 8:00 pm.

The preliminary voting is conducted as follows:

  • from the sixth to the first day before the day of the elections at polling stations daily from 12:00 to 20:00;

  • from the sixth to the third day before the day of the elections at the location of the voter, in institutions of the execution of punishments, hospitals and round-the-clock establishments of social protection of the population from 9:00 to 20:00. In certain cases provided for by the Riigikogu Election Act, voting at home is conducted from 9:00 to 20:00 on the second and first days before the day of the elections and on the day of the elections;

  • from the sixth to the first day before the day of the elections by electronic means of communication. Voting starts at 9:00 on the sixth day before the day of the elections and lasts round the clock until 20:00 on the eve of the day of the elections.

According to the official data of the Estonian National Electoral Committee and the State Electoral Office, from February 27 to March 4, 2023, 47.1% of voters have voted preliminarily, including 143,343 voters with paper ballots and 312,181 voters in electronic format. On the day of the elections, 158,277 voters or 16.4% of voters voted with paper ballots.

During the visits to 9 different polling stations in three electoral districts of the city of Tallinn on the day of preliminary voting on March 4, 2023, as well as 9 polling stations in three other electoral districts on the day of the elections on March 5, 2023, the members of the International Observing Mission of the human rights agency WEST SUPPORT recorded that in all cases, voting took place in a calm atmosphere without any queues or incidents. Uneven but generally moderate voter turnout was observed at the mentioned polling stations. Voting was conducted with strict adherence to the procedure established by the Law.



Conclusions and recommendation

Describing the 2023 elections to the Riigikogu, it should be noted that they were highly competitiveness, polarized, and characterized by a wide political pluralism.

According to official statistics, despite the harsh criticism of electronic voting from conservative political forces and their supporters among voters, these elections demonstrated a steady trend towards the increasing popularity of electronic voting. In 2023, the majority of voters voted electronically, namely, 312,181 voters cast their votes using an electronic ballot, while 301,620 voters used a traditional paper ballot. In contrast, in the 219 elections to the Riigikogu, only 247,232 voters voted electronically, while 317,813 voters used paper ballots.

Thanks to the introduction of an electronic voter list in 2021, voters are no longer tied to specific polling stations, and the voter's right to vote is verified directly on the polling stations using the electronic voter list, which greatly contributed to the convenience and accessibility of voting for supporters of traditional paper ballots, who make up almost half of all voters who cast their votes in this year's elections to the Riigikogu.



At the invitation of the State Electoral Office, over 70 independent international observers participated in the elections to the Riigikogu in 2023. Election observation was carried out according to a defined program, which included training seminars on general rules and peculiarities of the electoral process, briefings and presentations, visits to designated polling stations (9 polling stations on the day of early voting and an equal number on the day of the elections) determined by the State Election Service, presence during vote counting at one of the polling stations, and observation of the electronic vote counting commission's work.

Overall, the proposed election observation program is informative and interesting. At the same time, the human rights agency WEST SUPPORT's observation mission unanimously considers it necessary to recommend that the authorities responsible for organizing and conducting elections expand the opportunities for international observers in terms of choosing the number, location, calendar dates, and time limits for visiting polling stations to independently obtain the most complete and objective information about the voting process and thereby increase the level of openness and transparency of this important element of the electoral process.


*****

Thus, the elections to the Riigikogu in 2023 can be characterized as peaceful, open, and democratic. The international observation mission of the human rights agency WEST SUPPORT highly appreciates the government and people of the Republic of Estonia for their efforts in successfully holding the parliamentary elections and thereby deepening democratic governance processes in the country, which is undoubtedly a prerequisite and an important political factor in its sustainable socio-economic development.

The international observation mission of the human rights agency WEST SUPPORT emphasizes that the assessment of the electoral process was carried out based on the normative-legal framework of the Republic of Estonia and current international standards for democratic elections. WEST SUPPORT conducts its observation missions, among other things, in accordance with the 2005 Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and the Code of Conduct for International Election Observers.



Andrii Ovsiienko

Commissioner for Human

Rightsof the agency "West support"

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