Meet Estonia's next PM

By bne IntelliNews April 18, 2011

Mike Collier in Tallinn -

bne has a reputation for putting its money where its mouth is, so how about this for a bold bet: the day after Estonians voted in Andrus Ansip for another term as prime minister on March 6, bne met with the candidate who finished fourth - and believes he will be the next man into the job in 2015.

On the face of it, the wager looks like a long shot. Sven Mikser's Social Democratic party (SDE) won just 19 of a total 101 seats in the Estonian parliament, behind Ansip's Reform part on 33, the opposition Centre party on 26 and Reform's coalition partner IRL on 23. Thus SDE is the smallest party with representation in the Riigikogu.

But to students of form, Mikser lacks many of the handicaps of his rivals and SDE gained more seats (nine) than any other party. "The minimum plan was to get one mandate from each district for the first time, which we managed to do. The more ambitious plan was to beat the best-ever result from the 1999 elections when we got 17 seats," Mikser tells bne. "We ran a very well-coordinated campaign. We managed to get the whole party working in unison with a very clear message: to bring children and families with children out of poverty. All these difficult decisions which the government has made to come out of the recession have put the biggest burden on the weakest in society. That needs to be reversed."

At just 37 years old, Mikser has youth in his favour, making even Ansip (57) seem like a bit of an old nag let alone the Centre party's Edgar Savisaar (61), who looks just about ready for the knacker's yard.

Just as importantly, Mikser seems like a genuine and modest man - a fact that should not be underestimated when most Estonians view the political classes as a self-perpetuating elite. With his thin frame, square glasses and windcheater, he looks more like a junior maths teacher than an ambitious politician, which helps contrast SDE's avowed concern for ordinary folk with the ruling coalition's technocratic tendencies. "They [the government] just put the macroeconomic indicators before the ordinary individual or the family. They are happy as long as the macroeconomic indicators are doing well, which we think is just part of the picture and not quite enough," Mikser says.

As he admits, SDE's proposals mean spending more money, not just re-allocating existing resources. But the second reason for SDE's growing appeal is perhaps the one Ansip should be more worried about.

Nordic nanny state

In his election night victory speech, PM Ansip went out of his way to talk about "the Nordic country of Estonia." But if Estonia really is as Nordic as he thinks, then Estonians will at some point demand the Nordic social model (high tax/high spend) rather than the government's neoliberal approach of flat taxes and minimal state support.

"The government is very much in favour of a business-friendly tax environment and business-friendly economic policies," says Mikser. "I think it's a bit of a simplistic view, because much of our competitiveness has been the result of rather cheap labour. We cannot actually expect to improve the competitiveness of our economy by making this competitive edge permanent. Instead of trying to make labour even cheaper by reducing certain taxes, we need to make the qualitative leap and improve the value added.

Mikser explains that this can only be done by targeting education - and not just higher education - but also vocational and lower levels of education. "Concentrating on reducing overall taxation is not the solution," he says."

As further proof of his "Nordic" credentials, Mikser was even drafted in by the Social Democrats in neigbouring Finland on April 11 to give an upbeat speech as part of their own election campaign.

And with the other opposition party, the Centre Party, likely to undergo years of internal strife as modernisers attempt to wrest it away from Savisaar's grasp, the field is open for the Social Democrats to overtake them as the most active and organised critics of government policy. "What has been called the consolidation of the political landscape - the fact we have four parties in parliament instead of six - means that the opposition has a very important role," says Mikser.

"I'm pretty concerned about the future of the Centre party, because on one hand their support declined quite badly outside Tallinn and Ida-Virumaa [areas with strong Russian minorities]. On the other hand, Edgar Savisaar personally got a very strong mandate which will make it difficult to make significant changes at the top of the party leadership. They will have to concentrate on their internal affairs, which will make us the strongest voice for the national interest as an opposition party in parliament, even though they have more seats."

Face of the future

According to Mihkel Solvak, a political scientist at the Universit of Tartu, Mikser is a man to watch. "In the pre-election debates he proved himself worthy of leading the party. He's articulate and a good debater. He's young and educated so he seems a credible alternative. Also, SDE managed to pick up a lot of support from the parties that didn't make it into parliament, particularly the People's Union. They had former People's Union candidates running as their candidates and they managed to bring the votes with them."

It was instructive to watch on election night when Mikser dropped by to congratulate Ansip on his victory. Reform's post-poll party was taking place on the top floor of the Swissotel skyscraper, an expensive and glitzy expression of the party's corporate-friendly culture. In contrast, SDE chose the modest, bohemian and independently-run Wabadus Cafe (worth a visit next time you're in Tallinn).

Noticing Mikser's arrival, Ansip seemed flustered and a little offhand, keeping him waiting and forcing an unconvincing smile only when he realised the TV cameras were live. One might almost say he was a bit rude. Or maybe he was having a Shakespearean vision that on the night of his own coronation, he was already looking at his successor.

Meet Estonia's next PM

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