The purifying bridge of Res Publica

  • 2004-07-15
  • By Rein Taagepera
Four years ago I would have told anyone who cared to listen that Estonia had too many parties. In a study by Grofman, Mikkel and Taagepera (2000), we also noted that no major new player had entered the field since 1995.

We characterized the party constellation in the early 1990s as kaleidoscopic but gave figures to show that the party system in Estonia seemed to stabilize. Yet, one year after the publication of this article a new party, Res Publica, was formed and did unbelievably well. A mere 15 months after its official formation (Dec. 8, 2001) it carried the parliamentary elections and formed a coalition government. In the case of parties that include practically no former politicians, this might be the second-fastest rise to government leadership, next to the Popular Movement for Simeon II in Bulgaria in 2001.
If my scholarly prediction four years ago proved erroneous, I have no one to blame but myself, because I agreed to become the founding chair of this new party. This was a measure of my unease about the country's social condition - and also of my inherent optimism, belief that something could be done. My tenure was brief, and I am no longer involved in the party leadership except as an elder statesmen who is consulted occasionally. Thus, I describe the meteoric rise of Res Publica from a detached insider's vantage point.
My broad diagnosis of the recent unease is that Estonians have tried to join the Western world by adopting its institutions but avoiding changing themselves. In terms of human propensities such an approach is quite understandable, but it has reached a stage of diminishing returns - hence the growing worries. My recipe is briefly the following: "Foreign rule has changed us, and now we must change ourselves so as to become ourselves again."
Res Publica's driving force was a group of young people (mostly under 30) who believed in private enterprise but had come to realize the need for social correctives. They stressed openness in intra-party dealings and finances, and they composed a code of political ethics. The sudden success in local elections [October 2002] made Res Publica look like the major center-right counterweight to the center-left Center Party, whose personalistic leader, Edgar Savisaar, appealed to many but scared many more. Relentlessly, Res Publica proclaimed that a vote for Res Publica would be the only way to keep Savisaar out of government. It paid off in parliamentary elections, but it also narrowed down Res Publica's options during the post-election coalition talks.
In the parliamentary elections of March 2, 2003, Res Publica broke even with the Center Party. The rift between Res Publica and the Center Party left the third-ranking Reform Party in a kingmaker's position. Despite their bluntly rightist platform, they had proven that they could work with the center-left Center Party. After month-long haggling, Parts became prime minister in a coalition Cabinet of center-right Res Publica, Reform Party and the centrist-populist People's Union. The latter's position in the coalition seemed weak, because it could be replaced by the center-right nationalist Fatherland Union. As a result, the Reform Party pushed its program forcefully, taking advantage of its parliamentary experience in the negotiations with the Res Publica newcomers.
How often does it happen in the democratic world that a brand new party achieves that much power so quickly? Paul Lucardie (2000) counts as successful a new party that wins one seat or a few in the Parliament -- and such instances are few in Western Europe. To obtain 24.6 percent of the votes and 27 percent of the seats at the first try, as Res Publica did, is visibly unreal in a mature political system. Newly democratizing countries, of course, are more volatile. Half a year prior to Res Publica's triumph in Estonia, a newly formed party won the elections in neighboring Latvia, too.
Let us try to classify the new parties I have mentioned. New Era in Latvia seems a prophetic and purifying mix. Simeon's is a personalistic party acting as prolocutor for the impoverished majority, proposing an 800-day program for escape from misery. The 800 days are now over, and some progress may have been made, given the government's survival. Classification is difficult in the case of Res Publica. If they are prolocutors for a segment of the population, then which one is it? Could it be the entire people, in analogy with Simeon? If they are prophetic, then for which new ideology?
The very name Res Publica hints at public interest, the interet general neglected by the existing particularistic parties. The first thing the youthful initiators of the prospective party stressed when recruiting me in spring 2001 was that the Center Party's vision was narrowly social, while that of the Reform Party was narrowly financial; they supposedly aimed at joining the two. By these considerations, they could fit among the purifiers, despite the absence of a classical "pure" ideology.
Thus, Res Publica might be characterized as a purifying bridge party. This classification fits in with the perennial and well-founded griping that Res Publica lacks a clear ideological visage. It could also explain its success, despite lack of such visage - or precisely thanks to that lack. This characterization applies to Res Publica during the period of its rise. How success could alter Res Publica is another matter. o

Rein Taagepera is research professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, and professor emeritus of political science at Tartu University. These are extracts from his recent report
at a political science seminar in Tartu.