2.1 General description, history, and key data of the political system

The main actors in Estonian political system are political parties. The Political Parties Act defines political party as a voluntary political non-profit association of Estonian citizens the objective of which is to express the political interests of its members and supporters and to exercise state and local government authority. The means for achieving the objectives of a political party are:
  1. the presentation of candidates and conduct of election campaigns of the political party in elections to the Riigikogu and the European Parliament and local government council elections;
  2. the participation of the political party in the activities of the Riigikogu through members of the political party elected to the Riigikogu; in the activities of the European Parliament through members of the political party elected to the European Parliament; in the activities of local government councils through members of the political party elected to local government councils; in the election of the President of the Republic, the formation of the Government of the Republic and the executive body of local government councils through members of the political party elected to the Riigikogu and to the local government council, respectively; and in international co-operation with political parties of foreign states.

Figure 1. The outlines of Estonian political system

The political power at a national level is concentrated in 6 parliamentary parties - Estonian Reform Party, Estonian Centre Party, Estonian People's Union (since 2005 these three parties form the governing coalition), Res Publica, Pro Patria Union (these two are in the middle of unification process into a conservative party) and Social Democratic Party. All political parties are quite young, established in 1990s. The contemporary landscape of political parties is the result of many splits and mergers during the last 15 years.
The coalition parties execute political power through the state government. During the most of the post-Soviet period the Estonian governments have been majority governments. The recent practice is that the coalition parties tend to operate quite independently (but within the limits of coalition treaty, which also includes the distribution of ministerial positions) in their governmental responsibility areas. The decisions are made if the consensus between the coalition parties is achieved.
The function of the president as the head of the state is more or less ceremonial. His/her significance is more conspicuous in the fields of defence and foreign policy. According to the Constitution, he/she is the supreme commander of the national defence of Estonia and represents the Republic of Estonia in international relations. He/she also appoints several high rank governmental officials. His/her role in relation to legislative power is confined to the right of refusing (with constitutional arguments) the proclamation of laws - in that case the parliament should discuss the bills once more.
The moderate position of the president is in accordance with the fact that the president does not have a direct mandate from the people but is elected by the parliament or electoral body, formed by the members of the parliament and the elected representatives of local municipalities. In reality, as long as the procedure prescribes that at least 2/3 of parliament members should vote for one candidate for an election, all presidents elected after the restitution of the Republic are elected by the election body, where only simple majority is required.
The regional level of the Estonian political system is very shallow. There is no representative body elected in/for counties. In parliamentary elections the county borders are taken into account - one election district usually contains 2 or more counties. The major political parties have regional, county-based councils and small administrations.
The role of political parties at the local level is significant but somewhat less dominant than at the national level. Although in bigger cities and in many other municipalities the political parties dominate in the election and work of local councils, in some others local election coalitions (some of what are coalitions of political parties, while others coalitions of people not belonging to any political party) have taken the leading position. The local governments (with approx. 3-7 members) formed by the local councils are most often recruited by local politicians. These persons are the political and administrative figures at the same time. In some (smaller) cases, also non-political officials are included to the local government.

The direct participation of people in forming political decisions is more like a theoretical/legislative option than an actual practice. Every Estonian citizen and citizen of the European Union (if he or she satisfies some other conditions) may stand as a candidate in parliamentary or local elections. In practice, only at a local level there has been and are examples of persons elected to respective representative body.

The Constitution provides the possibility for the exercising the supreme power of state by the people through a referendum. It has been used twice since regaining independence - while adopting the present Constitution and while voting for joining European Union. At a local level, 1% of all electorate may initiate the discussion of local issues in a local council. The regulations of local ballots should be determined by local councils and the results of such ballots are only recommendatory.