No. 36




Voter turnout, particularly in merged local governments

07 December 2017


RiTo No. 36, 2017

  • Rein Toomla

    Rein Toomla

    Teacher, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu

The administrative-territorial reform of 2017 was the most thorough one ever in the history of the Republic of Estonia. The number of local municipalities decreased by nearly three times – from 213 to 79. As a result of that, 50 new local municipalities were formed which consisted of at least two, and in the most extreme case, seven, old local municipalities. Elections in the neighbouring countries of Estonia – specifically in Finland and Latvia – have shown that voter turnout tends to fall in merged local municipalities. In the debates before the elections, that was thought to happen in Estonia, too – the reason being the potential disappointment of the electorate when the state clearly prefers quantitative indicators when organising the administrative-territorial reform. In the Government’s opinion, a rural municipality or city with at least 5000 residents is a viable local municipality.

The results of the local government council elections in Estonia in 2017 can be interpreted in various ways. First of all, it had to be admitted that the voter turnout in Estonia as a whole fell – 58 per cent in 2013 and 53.3 per cent in 2017. If the restructuring of local governments had involved all local municipalities, the administrative-territorial reform could indeed have been pointed out as the primary reason for voter turnout – as was actually the case in Latvia. A somewhat more complicated situation emerged in Estonia. In those 50 new merged local municipalities, the voter turnout was somewhat higher than in the country as a whole ‒ 53.8 per cent. In the local municipalities that remained unchanged, which numbered 29, the turnout accounted for 52.9 per cent. Thus, a conclusion can be made here that the fall of voter turnout was the greatest in the local municipalities whom the administrative-territorial reform did not concern. The fall was particularly steep in larger cities, for example in the capital, Tallinn, the turnout decreased from 64.1 per cent to 53.5 per cent.

Yet the 50 local municipalities mentioned do not constitute a single whole. Comparing the voter turnout in 2013 and in 2017, it appeared that the turnout had risen in 14 local municipalities and fallen in 36 local municipalities. In terms of both the number of local municipalities and the number of the people living there – around 75 per cent of the inhabitants of those 50 local municipalities resided in 36 local municipalities ‒ we can still speak of a decline. However, the rise in the 14 local municipalities was so high that it compensated the low fall in the remaining ones.

The local municipalities that had recourse to a court to repeal the administrative-territorial reform did not form a whole either. The Supreme Court rejected all their applications but that did not bring about a fall in voter turnout in those local municipalities – in about a third of the 17 local municipalities that had had recourse to a court and had lost there, voter turnout grew.