You've got to hand it to the Center Party. No matter what mud their sworn adversaries sling at them, it just doesn't stick. No matter what invective, no matter what accusation of corruption one comes up with, legitimate or otherwise, it all simply slides off the Centrists' thick skin like that ofâ€¦ well, a rhinoceros.
Led by the indefatigable Edgar Savisaar, the Center Party pulled off an impressive victory in Estonia's municipal elections. It garnered 41 percent of the vote in Tallinn and 25.5 percent nationwide. By comparison, in October 2002, when the last municipal ballot was held, the party managed 25.8 percent, and in March 2003 during the parliamentary elections it finished slightly ahead of Res Publica with roughly the same percentage.
But in the past two-and-a-half years the Centrists have been bombarded with negative press coverage and accusations of every sort. Both sides of the political spectrum, from the Social Democrats to Pro Patria, have spared no effort to vilify Savisaar and his party. Charges ranged from graft to pro-Kremlin euphoria.
To be sure, the Center Party has been beset by seemingly grave internal problems as well. Several Centrist MPs left the party in a sign of dissatisfaction with Savisaar's inflexible brand of leadership, and Savisaar failed to maintain his position as Tallinn mayor during an inter-electoral cycle due to council defections and partners' dissatisfaction.
Yet none of this has had any significant impact on the party's popularity. Estonians and Russians alike showed their loyalty to the Center Party platform, which adheres to a unique brand of tax-and-spend policies, particularly on the local level where the Centrists are strong. Indeed, the key the Centrists' success lies in their ability to woo both segments of the population. In Estonia, after all, noncitizens have the right to vote in municipal polls, and the Centrists are one of the few parties positioned to benefit from that. (To be sure, the Centrists also benefit from the notorious inability of ethnic Russians to form a unified political front.) In hindsight, the Center Party's cooperation agreement with United Russia, the Kremlin's group of legislative lackeys in the State Duma, a move that was impugned by Estonian nationalists of all masts, looks like sheer genius. Noncitizens loved it.
It remains to be seen what Savisaar will do with the victory. He has confessed to wanting to return to the Tallinn mayoral post, to finish unfinished business, but no doubt he has many incomplete tasks on his desk in the Economy Ministry. Since taking that post he has been given a wide berth in the transport sector, and his influence has been felt. Just ask Estonian Railways. Whatever Savisaar's ultimate decision, we can rest assured that his skin will remain rhino-thick.