Estonian far-right party holds torchlight march ahead of polls

People participate in a torchlight procession dedicated to Independence Day in Tallinn, Estonia, 24 February 2019. Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) organized a torchlight procession in honor of Estonia's Independence Day. [Valda Kalnina/EPA/EFE]

Thousands of supporters of Estonia’s nationalist EKRE party held a torchlight march to mark independence day in Tallinn on Sunday (24 February) as the once marginal party is set make big gains in a general election next weekend.

Party chairman Mart Helme told the crowd that Estonians refuse to “die out” and want more autonomy in the EU, reflecting the EKRE’s eurosceptic stance.

Other protesters held a counter rally under the slogan “Sparkle and don’t be a Nazi”, but there were no incidents, according to police.

While EKRE won only seven of the 101 seats in parliament in the 2015 general election, opinion polls show it is set to capture around 21 percent of the vote next Sunday.

The result puts it narrowly behind the opposition liberal Reform Party and the governing centrist Center Party, which took office in November 2016.

According to experts, the EKRE’s growing popularity is rooted in the misgivings of rural Estonians who feel left behind, and reflects a trend that has seen the growth of right-wing nationalist parties elsewhere in the European Union.

“These people see few economic prospects and feel that the mainstream parties don’t care much about their problems,” Tonis Saarts, an associate professor of politics at Tallinn University, told AFP.

The EKRE’s growing appeal is also rooted in its opposition to immigration, multiculturalism and same-sex marriage.

“The mainstream parties and the Estonian media tends to be more liberal than the rest of the population,” Saarts noted.

“The EKRE is the only party which is able to express ultra-conservative values in the most convincing way,” he added.

Saarts sees similarities between the EKRE and other far right parties in Europe like Italy’s League party or Germany’s AfD in terms of their opposition to immigrants and multiculturalism.

He notes that the EKRE’s position on liberal democracy and its key institutions like civic and human rights, rule of law and separation of powers is “very ambiguous”.

EKRE supporters also shun Estonia’s large Russian minority, accounting for around a quarter of the Baltic state’s population of 1.3 million.

Wary of Russia, the EKRE is a staunch backer of NATO membership.

Estonia was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II and remained under Moscow’s thumb until 1991.

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