Observing elections in Estonia: a matter of tranquility

Perçin İmrek, 28, is a Turkish citizen from İstanbul and a former board member of AEGEE-Europe. After the EOM Estonia, his second AEGEE mission as an election observer, Perçin reviews his experience in Estonia.

This way tot the voting booth

Before I set foot on Estonian soil, I could guess that this observation mission will be rather more easygoing than my previous one, which was in Moldova. Now, I do not say that there was anything (or much) wrong with the elections in Moldova, but with the combination of a little knowledge on Estonian culture, an overview of the Nordic mentality and the flawlessness of the past elections, I did not have much space for doubt on the elections in Estonia. After I left the country, I was assured that my confidence was justified.

We were going to Estonia to see if the citizens are doing their responsibilities by voting, and if the officials are doing their responsibilities by making sure that the votes have been counted fairly and every one was involved in the voting process.

A thorough preparation

But were we doing our responsibilities as observers and preparing ourselves for this mission? Did we know enough about the Estonian culture, Estonian Politics, Estonian voting procedures and (last but not the least), the process of E-Voting? The organizers of this mission thought this through and arranged a series of activities for us, in which:

– We have been to the Estonian Parliament, where we had a small tour by an official, which followed by an information session on how the Parliament works.

– We met with group of observers from Poland, “Forum of Young Diplomats”, where one person from the e-voting committee explained us what e-voting is (and how it works) in a nutshell. Then another person (representing chief national NGO institution Network of Estonian Non-Governmental Organization, NENO) told us about their initiative to name & shame political parties which do not act according to the rules & legislations (yes, in Estonia they break the law too). NENO launched national wide “good electoral practice” campaign ensuring all running for Parliamentary elections parties act in line with democratic commitments avoiding intimidation of voters, indirect vote buying, etc.

– We attended a big scale conference where professors and experts came and delivered speeches about the history of Estonian politics, the implementation of e-voting and some infographics on the current Estonian elections.

With these sessions and a little bit of homework, we were ready and steady to play our role as observers for the Riigikoguu elections in Estonia. Waking up very early on the 1st of March, I have left with my colleague Tamara (from Ukraine) to go to Pohja-Tallinn, a region on the Northwest Tallinn, apparently with a big Russian minority.

This was a major asset for us, while my partner was a native Russian speaker, we were going to have a better chance to observe how Russian minorities are involved in the elections.

So we started the day…

From the first polling station to the last one (we have been to 13 Polling Stations in total), things went pretty ordinary. In one occasion where a voter came, took his ballot paper, and just tore it apart (as a sign of protest we believe) and left without voting. Amongst all that dullness, this seemed like an exciting happening for us.

Polling station

In some of the polling stations, with the small talks we have exchanged with the PEC members, they made comments like ‘so it must be thrilling to observe elections here’ or ‘make sure you write nasty things on your report’, ironically referring to how everything goes smooth.

In the polling stations, apart from the regular voting procedures, where the voter presented his/her ID, took his/her ballot, entered the voting stations, wrote down the number (yes, the candidates were numbered, not stamped), and down put his envelope in the ballot box; when there were no voters left in the station, the Polling Station Officials just stayed there quietly, exchanging polite smiles with each other, barely speaking.

The Russian minority

Russian is not an official language of Estonia, so we understand that there were no Russian materials available for the Russian speaking population (which is around 25% of the whole Estonian population). However, we believe that providing materials in Russian would have been helpful for the small amount of people who do not speak Estonian, but only Russian (these are generally old people), since it is important that everybody is equally involved in the voting process, and Russian speaking population is a reality of Estonia. Only our group though, found some materials (voting guides) in Russian in the Tallinn district of Põhja distributed by the municipality in advance to the election day by post. However, none of the other groups have come across to such material, which means that it was not widely distributed.

Only contributing to the positive image of Estonia, polling station officials were generally very friendly and helpful with us, answering our questions without hesitation (only one PEC member was wondering why we were asking these questions), having interesting conversations with us, and even offering us some Estonian flag wrapped cookies.

All in all, the small but strongly democratic, one of a kind country Estonia did not surprise us, and delivered as expected.

We are hoping that every country becomes as transparent, fluid and diligent as Estonia is being today.

Percin Imrek