The Estonian parliamentary elections are this Sunday (and electronic voting has been going on for the best part of a week), and I suppose I really ought to write something about them.
I've been avoiding it, for a number of reasons. For one, there doesn't seem to be very much invasion of the real world with these elections. Political street advertising is banned, and I don't watch TV*, so the only real exposure I've had is the news articles and debates. Maybe the coverage is more pervasive in Tallinn. I've gotten some paper spam in the last few days, but nowhere near as much as I remember from previous election cycles, including Europarliament and local elections.
The other reason is that there is very little intrigue in the run-up to these elections. I've said before that the incumbent Reform Party was likely to do well, thanks to the successful Euro adoption and its general reputation as the party of economic administrators at a time when the economy is the most important issue. I'd hoped that Ansip would be forced to leave, on the general principle that having the same person in charge for so long is not healthy; but I'm pretty sure I'll be losing that bet. At this stage, the biggest question about the elections on March 6th is whether Andrus Ansip's Reform Party will get 51 seats, giving them a single-party majority, or if they will simply end up with somewhere north of 40, forced to grab one of the lesser parties into a coalition.
The Center Party will almost inevitably get some parliamentary seats, but will stay in opposition; it's also likely to lose seats compared to the current election. Not only is it suffering still from the effects of Savisaar's Kremlin money scandal, but it still doesn't have anything to actually offer, other than the idea of a progressive income tax. Anger among the disenfranchised means the Centrists are not out for the count, but their platform is unacceptable to Estonian voters with actual ambition or hope.
IRL has been getting surprising amounts of support, based on the chatter I hear. It is turning into a sink for all the mainstream voters who dislike Reform for their apparent elitism and blame them for the economic troubles, but are not ready to turn to Savisaar. The problem with IRL is that its best people are not being used to good effect. I'm starting to suspect that Mart Laar is disillusioned with the party as it exists today, and the actual RL part of it - Juhan Parts, Tõnis Luukas, and the other remnants of the pre-Ansip cabinet - are disliked by pretty much everyone, including Reform themselves. (In the media hurricane that followed the Savisaar scandal, there was an interesting claim - that the original press leak came from senior IRL officials, as a way of distracting the political establishment from Reform's planned ouster of Parts. That may or may not be the case, but it's clear that Res Publica people have been annoying in their statements and behavior.) Ideologically, IRL seems to be positioning itself as the catch-all center-right party: if Reform is taking care of the economic conservative side of things, then IRL wants the rest of the generic conservative platform. There is some strategic sense behind it, as Europe is generally shifting to the right, and IRL might get support from Old Europe's Christian Democrats and other conservative forces - but the problem is that Estonia is not a natural home for conservative socialism. So IRL is combining populistic promises about education, pensions, welfare benefits etc. with US-style family values. Estonia's political landscape does not need Tõnis Lukas's homophobic outbursts.
The Social Democrats are up in the air right now, and their performance in the elections is the one thing that is both interesting and uncertain. The party's image has suffered with the meltdown of their previous leadership and getting kicked out of Ansip's cabinet, but they seem to have successfully purged the old guard. Their current leader is Sven Mikser, a defector from the Center Party (where he served as Defense Minister in the Ansip-Savisaar coalition, despite never having even served as a conscript - though the latter is not necessarily a bad thing). Mikser is relatively young, but he's an established persona, and oddly enough his change of parties actually makes him look like a man of principle (as much as applicable to a politician, anyway, particularly in a country with poorly differentiated parties). That said, the absolute worst thing that could happen to SDE right now is for the electorate to take them seriously, as an actual Social Democratic party, rather than a safe vote sink that will keep the major players in check. In the same way that Estonia needs to embrace European values more closely before it can properly process IRL's social conservatism, the country needs to build up its economic base and labor efficiency before it can afford SDE's social liberalism. The Scandinavian welfare model is something Estonia will probably end up with, but not for a few decades: we need to be able to afford it without running up massive public debt, and we need a generational change to establish the samhälle, the sense of social unity and responsibility which is the bedrock of Scandinavian society.
Unfortunately, that's more or less it. Only these four parties are guaranteed to be represented in the next Riigikogu. The Greens have blown their chance and do not appeal to anyone - even Epp Petrone, arguably Estonia's most prominent and fervent environmentalist, refused to run as a Green in the last local elections. The leadership crisis of Rahvaliit, the farmers' party, makes SDE's clustermess look as elegant, amicable and coordinated as a Tour de France lead cyclist exchange.
Personally, I ended up voting (electronically) for whoever happened to be the lead of my constituency's Reform list, much as expected. I am by no means happy with the Reform Party's performance, current state and future prospects, but unlike the others, Reform still leaves the impression that they intend to base their leadership style on the economy: if we all make money, the other problems will resolve themselves somehow. That's a flawed strategy, but on some level it appeals to my thinking in that one must solve one's own problems, not hope for external assistance; and it's also less damaging in the long run than IRL's stated program of adding massive new social spending to the budget, without any idea of where the extra money will come from. Estonia's tiny budget deficit and near-nonexistent public debt is still a Good Thing(tm), and we should not give them up. SDE suffers from the same problem, and I guess they're actually less offensive under new leadership than IRL - the same sort of welfare policies without IRL's conservative intolerance - but I neither believe nor support any of their promises.
As for the Centrists, I suppose my main objection against Savisaar and his clique is that they do not appear to act in the country's long-term best interest. However objectionable I find the coalition parties, SDE, or Strandberg's Greens, all of them seem to be acting under the assumption that they and their children and grandchildren will be living in Estonia for a long time to come, and while they use their power to their own advantage as much as they can, they still understand that building a prosperous and stable society in Estonia (at the cost of painful decisions today) is in their own best interest. What I'm seeing in Savisaar is the attitude that nothing matters more than his own personal well-being
*Really not trying to be a hipster douche here. I watch a bunch of TV shows, listen to podcasts, etc.; I consume popular culture. Broadcast television is just a really inefficient way of content delivery. I don't even have a cable subscription any more, and my DVR's been offline for months.
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