U.S.-style campaign minus the ideology

  • 2002-10-31
  • Toomas Aarand Orav
The Estonian media called them the most hotly contested local city and town elections in the country's history. Media mogul Hans H. Luik figures about 75 million kroons (4.8 million euros) was spent on the campaigns. And marketing firms are set to do brisk business by the time the real contest, the parliamentary election, concludes in four months. Voters can hardly wait for another blitz of U.S.-style politicking.

Setting aside annoyances with the electoral process, the media was not surprised by the outcome. For months, pundits have been predicting the Center Party would be a run-away winner in the local contests. True to expectation, the Centrists strengthened their hold on the Tallinn City Council and solidified gains nearly everywhere else.

There was good reason to expect the Center Party's success. Despite being the press' whipping boy, leader Edgar Savisaar has methodically built the country's largest and best-organized party machine. His party also does better at tapping into the large pool of Russian-speaking voters who can make or break a municipal campaign.

Local analyst Urman Kook sees three keys to the success with minorities: tailoring the political message to embrace Russian-speakers, attracting minority community leaders to the ballot and convincing minorities that their interests were best served through an ethnically-neutral political network.

The elections went badly for other established parties. The Center Party's erstwhile parliamentary coalition partners in the Reform Party maintained their grip on Estonia's second city, Tartu, but otherwise lost ground. Although the coalition seems sure to endure through the winter, the picture beyond then is less clear.

The outcome for Mart Laar's Pro Patria Union was nothing short of disastrous. The self-styled party of government is deeply unpopular. Eesti Paevaleht editors see a firm trend now that the right side of the political spectrum undergoes a shake up every three years. Enter the fresh-faced Res Publica party. (This writer can't figure why Estonian conservatives are obsessed with Latin terms). Exit Mr. Laar from his party's chairmanship, again.

The final key development is the inability of the Moderate Party to be competitive, anywhere. The pundits see it not so much as the personal failure for party leader Toomas Ilves, but as a rejection social democratic views in general. Mr. Ilves has resigned his leadership post. The future of social democracy in Estonia is as hazy as ever.

Opinion writers draw one main conclusion from the local elections. The Center Party appears it will add parliamentary seats in March at the expense of the right, even without the votes of non-citizens. It is hard to imagine that new or retrenching parties can offer serious opposition.

The major Estonian dailies reacted by reiterating a call to form a national conservative coalition. I've lost track of the number of articles on this topic. So why doesn't it succeed? Eesti Paevaleht prints the best argument in a post-election analysis by Iivi Masso. She argues that the political landscape is still far from that of Western democracies; voters have not formed clear preferences for ideologies or parties. Since parties have no reliable constituencies to call on, they appeal to personal relationships. On the basis of electoral programs, all parties are virtually identical. It's the personalities that make mergers well-nigh impossible.

Should we expect, as some pundits breathlessly anticipate, that the upcoming parliamentary election will lead to party-political consolidation? The U.S. case shows personality-driven politics can become exceedingly expensive and even tends to turn off voters. Parties will be bankrupt, philosophically and financially.

American-style campaigning could leave only a few well-run parties standing, but it's a stretch to think that fewer parties implies better political choices. I'd call it a reverse-engineering of a modern western democracy.