Estonia's re-election day

By bne IntelliNews February 15, 2011

Mike Collier in Tallinn -

Foregone conclusions in elections are generally found where the electorate is thoroughly fed up with the incumbents and so turn in droves to boot them out or, as in the case of Belarus, the incumbent is fed up with the people and rigs the vote. Neither of the two scenarios applies to Estonia, yet the small Baltic nation is heading towards parliamentary elections with a notable lack of suspense. On March 6, 794 candidates will battle for 101 seats in the Riigikogu, or parliament, but the only real question is by how much Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and his Reform party will win.

His two-party ruling coalition isn't exactly popular, but isn't exactly unpopular either. Ansip has been in power since 2005 - that should mean he is approaching his sell-by date. Democracies tend to get tired of anyone after seven or eight years and the first two years of Ansip's tenure coincided with the high point of Estonia's economic boom, throwing into sharp relief the subsequent massive huge bust of 2008-09.

When the crash came, Ansip instituted some very tough spending cuts - by his own admission later than necessary - which should have made him even more unpopular. Yet Ansip remains by a large margin the man most Estonians think will be PM after the election, for two simple reasons. First, he kept his promise to get them into the Eurozone, giving Estonians a sense of almost masochistic national pride achieving such a feat in the middle of a recession. Second and more prosaically, while Ansip is hardly Captain Charisma, there is simply no credible heavyweight alternative to him offered by the opposition. Reform's election slogan says it all: "Void Kidel Olla" roughly translates as "Something to rely on," which sounds more like an ad for a Volkwagen than a rallying cry.

Grey by comparison

Much is said about how different Estonia is to its Baltic neighbours, but at no time is this more apparent than during an election campaign. Latvia and Lithuania can be guaranteed to serve up plenty of colourful characters making extravagant and increasingly desperate promises to voters. All three Baltic states have bans on political advertising in the pre-election period. In Latvia and Lithuania that means spin doctors do their utmost to sneak subliminal messages into TV shows, or in the case of last year's Latvian election, take out ads featuring an ice hockey hero displaying his shirt, which just happened to be emblazoned with the ballot-box number of a certain party.

By contrast, Estonia has Finance Minister Jurgen Ligi telling bne: "The problem is not that we have to make unpopular decisions, the problem is that we have to make popular decisions - we have an election coming up."

The role of Ansip's rival was supposed to be played by the Centre Party's veteran big beast, Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar, relying on support from pensioners, ethnic Russians and others suspicious of the neoliberal agenda of Reform and its right-wing IRL coalition partner. But this time Savisaar looks like a dinosaur who has just noticed a large meteorite approaching, as he is embroiled in a major scandal involving the use of Russian money to ostensibly restore an Orthodox church and not-so-ostensibly fund his party.

In an extraordinary development in December, counter-intelligence agency KAPO declassified evidence that Russian Railways President Vladimir Yakunin promised Savisaar €1.5m towards his election campaign, and described the relationship between the two as "the most insipid story for our country's morale in the last 20 years."

Savisaar has denied the charges and accused KAPO of becoming politicised, but a hastily-convened Centre Party "Truth Commission" that cleared him did little to repair the damage. Election posters with a picture of Savisaar and the slogan "Help the unemployed!" now look comically prophetic.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves - himself up for re-election in August - even went so far as to say he would never consider allowing the Centre Party into government unless it "denounced and banned" such behaviour. But as Wikileaks documents then showed, Ilves wasn't exactly a fan of Savisaar anyway, describing him in a leaked memo from 2006 as a "cheap populist."

The harpooning of Savisaar leaves Social Democrat leader Sven Mikser as the second-most-popular potential candidate for the post of PM, or peaminister in Estonian, according to a poll by the Eesti Paevaleht newspaper. Aged just 37, his party was until recently in disarray, but could now pick up votes from Savissaaris and anyone else looking to register a protest against a status quo frequently characterised as arrogant and self-satisfied.

Even figures as involved in the election process as Kristjan Vassil, a doctoral student at the European University Institute, are open about the lack of real fire in the election. Vassil devised an "election compass" website for national broadcaster ERR to help voters discover which parties match their views. After doing so, he admitted to being a state of utter confusion. "For a while, I have not understood the basis upon which parties define themselves and the key issues," he told ERR.

There is a possibility that Reform could win an outright majority - an extraordinary prospect that many fear would be dangerous. Liia Hanni of the Estonian e-Governance Academy is among those calling for the threshold for parliamentary representation to be lowered from 5% to 3%. "It would be much more healthy for political life," she told ETV. "As a relatively young democracy, we have reason to fear that unshared power corrupts people."

The only glimmer of an upset would seem to come as a result of voter apathy or backing for an increased number of independent candidates, many of whom are former party members disillusioned with the stale taste of domestic politics. However, previous elections and the latest polls suggest that Estonians will continue to exercise their hard-won right to democracy with turnout expected to be around the 60% mark.

So while Estonia continues to pioneer new ideas in its business sector, its political landscape looks sterile. Continuity and stability can be reassuring qualities - but unless they are challenged properly, they can easily turn into complacency.

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