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.
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 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.
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.
Jan M. Olsen contributed to this report from Copenhagen, Denmark.