Kaja Kallas, leader of the Reform Party party gestures at her party headquarters after parliamentary elections in Tallinn, Estonia, early  March 4, 2019.
Kaja Kallas, leader of the Reform Party party gestures at her party headquarters after parliamentary elections in Tallinn, Estonia, early March 4, 2019.

TALLINN, ESTONIA - Tiny Estonia has become the latest European country with a political landscape reshaped by a populist party promising national survival in an age of globalism, a development noted Monday in light of European Union parliament elections.

Political observers watched a parliamentary election held Sunday in the Baltic nation, an EU and NATO member that borders Russia, as a continental barometer for whether far-right nationalists would continue making gains. And in Estonia, they did. 

While the center-right Reform Party, which ran on a low-tax, small-government platform, will be tasked with forming a government, the anti-immigrant, euroskeptic Estonian Conservative People's Party more than doubled its seat tally in parliament.

Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas is expected to become the country's first female prime minister after her party finished with 28.8 percent of the vote. The party said before the election it would not consider the Estonian Conservative People's Party, or EKRE, as a potential governing coalition partner. 

From the left: Reform party Party's secretary-gene
From the left: Reform party Party's secretary-general Erkki Keldo, Sven Mikser from Social Democrates, Jevgeni Ossinovski, leader of Social Democrates and Kaja Kallas pose for a photo after parliamentary elections in Tallinn, Estonia, early March 4, 2019.

The far-right party nevertheless captured a larger platform for its positions, some of which critics see as homophobic and racist. Martin Helme, who runs EKRE with his father and leads its parliament caucus, has said publicly that only white immigrants should be allowed into Estonia. 

On election night, Helme said the party's growing popularity was “no different than almost all other countries in Europe, where there's a serious public demand for political parties who will stand up against the globalist agenda” and European Union policymakers.

But the “biggest achievement” the vote count reflects is “We are dictating the Estonian political agenda,” he said. 

In recent years and months, support for populist parties with nationalist agendas has grown in Europe, from Poland and Hungary to France and Italy.

The outcome in Estonia bore similarities to what happened in Sweden last year. The Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi roots, won 62 seats in the 349-member parliament on Sept. 9, making it the third-largest party. 

The other parties ruled out forming a coalition government that included the Sweden Democrats. It took four months before a two-party, center-left minority government took office. 

In some countries, including Italy, nationalist surges followed large influxes of immigrants. In others, like Poland and Estonia, mass migration has been a source of anxiety even though the number of arriving migrants has been extremely small.

Shrinking populations and the threat of cultural identity eroding stirs the fear in countries that gained independence with the fall of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

Estonia, a former Soviet republic, has just 1.3 million people and its population declines each year due to low birth rates and emigration to richer Western countries. Ethnic Estonians make up 70 percent of the population, or some 900,000 people.

In this photo taken on Feb. 26, 2019, Chairman of
In this photo taken on Feb. 26, 2019, Chairman of the Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) Martin Helme speaks at his party's campaign meeting in Parnu, Estonia.

?In explaining his party's success in the election, Martin Helme, 42, said its message promoting traditional values has appeal to voters when demographic changes are causing worries.

“Emigration is a big thing in Estonia,” he said. “The replacement of the population in Estonia. Estonians are leaving and others coming in. These are big issues. Compared to those issues, tax issues are just meaningless.”

EKRE was formed in 2012 through a merger of an agrarian and a populist party. It defines its ideology as nationalist-conservative and its goal to protect the benefits of ethnic Estonians.

The party leads an annual torch-lit Independence Day march through Tallinn's Old Town. During the February event, hundreds of participants shout the party's slogan “For Estonia!”

Martin Helme's father, party chairman Mart Helme, is a former diplomat and a historian specializing in ancient Estonian civilization. He took over as EKRE's leader in 2013 and led it to securing 8 percent of the vote, or seven parliament seats, in 2015.

Chairwoman of the Reform Party Kaja Kallas speaks at her party headquarters after a parliamentary elections in Tallinn, Estonia, Sunday, March 3, 2019.
Center-Right Reform Party Wins Estonian Election
Estonia's center-right Reform Party, winner of the parliamentary election Sunday, has vowed to exclude a far-right populist party from negotiation talks to form a governing coalition.Reform, led by former lawmaker Kaja Kallas, won 28.8 percent of the vote, followed by Prime Minister Juri Ratas' Center Party with 23.1 percent.  Reform, which held the prime minister's chair from 2005 until 2016 – sometimes by itself and sometimes in a coalition with the Center Party – will have to team up with another…

The party opposed Estonia becoming the first ex-Soviet republic to allow same-sex couples to register as civil partners. In the past, it called for a referendum on leaving the EU but did not gain traction with the idea.

Martin Molder, a political scientist at Estonia's University of Tartu, thinks the party's growing strength is a protest against established elites.

“There's a lot of generic dissatisfaction in the electorate in regards to how ‘business as usual’ is done in politics,” Molder said. “Certain parties and politicians have been in power for a long time and they’ve created a kind of class of professional politicians whose only experience in life has been doing politics.”