2017 local government elections in Estonia

Posted: September 23rd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

There will be local government elections in Estonia on 15 October 2017 (with advance and internet-voting taking place already from 5 to 11 October). Local government elections are more democratic than parliamentary elections in Estonia, because the large Russian-speaking population (most of whom is either stateless or Russian citizens) can only vote during these elections. It is also the first time that 16 and 17-year olds can vote after voting age in local elections was decreased from 18 to 16. The local government elections are also a political precursor to the parliamentary elections which will take place in March 2019, so in about a year and a half.

As more than a third of Estonia’s population lives in the wealthy capital city of Tallinn, the outcome of the election there is going to have the most impact politically, which means that national media coverage and the focus of politicians is on that city. Tallinn is currently governed solely by the left-leaning centre-populist Centre Party, which has been subject to an internal divide. Thus the main strategies of all the other parties aim to break their dominance.

The incumbent Centre Party has suffered and internal divide after Edgar Savisaar, its founder and longtime head was deposed by Jüri Ratas, a less divisive figure, in a step which opened the door for them to form the new national government last year. Ratas became the Prime Minister, whereas Savisaar is currently being tried for corruption charges, which resulted also in his removal from the position of the Mayor of Tallinn. The replacement, de facto mayor Taavi Aas is now running as the candidate of the Centre Party for the mayor.

Even though tainted by various corruption charges and convictions, the Centre Party has overseen a quickly developing city, which has recently upgraded many of the trams and tram lines, including extending one of the tram line to Tallinn Airport. It has also introduced free public transport for registered inhabitants, a first in the world for a city of this size. Traffic has been tackled somewhat by decreasing space for cars and increasing bus-lanes, although Tallinn still remains a city dominated by cars, with not many cycle lanes in the city centre. It has also build social housing and opened renovated markets and a city-run convenience store, which aims to provide groceries at a cheaper cost to low-income persons.

However, it also increased spending on media channels for the city, including a local television channel, news portal and city and district newspapers. Those outlets and other city resources have been used for Centre Party propaganda purposes during not only local government elections but also other elections.

All in all, the Centre Party rule has been not the disaster that some people claim, but also not successful in developing the city. The focus on low income persons has been welcome, because of the increasing rift between very well to do and less well to do inhabitants. However, this has not been driven by a coherent strategy to reduce inequality and ethnic and social segregation, but rather as a vote-buying effort. The pervasive corruption and at times opaque decision-making have hampered the development of the city, as well.

Overall, everyone expects Centre Party to win elections in Tallinn, as they rely on the Russian-speaking voters, who tend to be loyal voters and with whom other parties have not been willing or able to engage. However, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to dominate the results similarly to last elections, in which they took more than 50% of all votes, in order to rule the city alone.

The conservative IRL won the distant second place in 2013, mostly thanks to the guerilla-style campaign run by their former mayoral candidate Eerik-Niiles Kross, who departed IRL already several years ago to the Reform Party. The moribund IRL has been losing voters and prominent politicians throughout the past years, getting squeezed by the far-right EKRE and the centre-right Reform Party. They have run an uninspiring, dull campaign this time in Tallinn, with a similarly dull and uninspiring mayoral candidate Raivo Aeg, who is a former head of the internal security police (which might be slightly weird in some countries, but apparently not in Estonia). However, IRL cannot be discounted, because even though their actual support among voters is minuscule, they still enjoy support among the Estonian-speaking economic and political elite as well as the mainstream media.

The centre-right, market-liberal Reform Party has been attempting to use the ethnic divisions as a campaign tool in Tallinn in order to win the votes of Estonian-speakers. They want to close Russian-language schools and kindergartens, at the same time promoting a vision of building a tunnel to Helsinki, which would lead to Tallinn and Helsinki forming a twin-city of sorts. Sadly for the Reform Party, their and the Finnish approaches to minorities, including the space and opportunities given for minority languages is a much wider gap to overcome than the 80 kms of sea that divides the two capitals. This, together with their flirtations with the extreme-right and a mayoral candidate who was himself implicated in a scandal involving illegal party financing, makes their messages somewhat confusing to more moderate Estonian-speaking voters. The Reform Party has never been too successful in local government elections, but now they need to be seen winning elections again after losing power nationally.

The left-liberal Social Democratic Party has seen a revival under young leader Jevgeni Ossinovski, which has lead them to play a larger than usual role in Estonian politics. From the three “new generation” leaders of former coalition partners IRL, Reform and Social Democrats, he is the only one still leading his party. They have been vocal about social issues, including same-sex partnerships, and opposing the far-right. In Tallinn and other places they offer a comprehensive programme, which aims to appease the hipster crowd as well as offer low income persons support. Building a funicular-railway to Toompea hill is for example among their promises in the city centre where I live, something that seems to be needed by no-one. The Social Democrats seem to aim with the local elections to get enough support to share power with the Centre Party in Tallinn, but also get a good enough result to give them a boost nationally ahead of the parliamentary elections.

The rising force of Estonian political scene is the far-right EKRE. They have adopted a nativist, populist and totalitarian platform, with which they have been able to get a lot of media coverage. Failing to denounce nazi-sympathisers among their midst, opposing vocally immigration of not only refugees and openly inciting homo- and transphobia makes them among the most extreme of Europe’s far right parties. For local government elections, they released the Ten Commandments which include islamophobic pledges such as not allowing Mosques to be built (even though no such plans exist), oppose “homosexual, gender-neutral and tolerance propaganda and other extreme ideologies” in schools and kindergartens (even though no such propaganda exists). Like the Reform Party, they want to end Russian language pre-school and primary education in Tallinn, but also offer a number of pledges to low-income persons. They did received less than 3% of the vote in Tallinn in 2013, but will probably win more votes this time.

The elections also include a number of newcomers, in the form of lists formed by electoral unions and smaller, fringe parties. The main contenders are:

  • Electoral unions Savisaar’s Union and Active Tallinn: a combination list of two electoral unions, one lead by the deposed mayor of Tallinn and former head of Centre Party and a number of his supporters from the Centre Party (whom the Centre Party has now expelled), the other organised by a powerful Estonian businessman seemingly to protect his business-interests that include another businessman and a number of their dependents and hangers-on;
  • Electoral union Free Citizen of Tallinn: a smallish list of mostly Estonian-speaking conservatives, related to the parliamentary right-centre Free Party.
  • Estonian Green Party: after recent leadership change, which saw them adopt similar positions as their western counterparts, they might attract a part of the youth vote.
  • There are also five more smaller lists as well as a number of single candidates.

The outcome of the elections are quite unpredictable. Things to watch in Tallinn:

  • whether Centre Party retains their majority even without Savisaar;
  • whether Savisaar attracts significant votes even without the Centre Party;
  • whether Reform Party’s divisive strategy helps or hurts them;
  • whether IRL ends up below or above the threshold.

Overall it will also be interesting to see what the youth vote share will be, including the 16 and 17-year-olds. As Estonia is the only country in the world that still uses internet voting, it will also be interesting what impact the recently discovered vulnerability in Estonian ID-cards will have on the use of internet voting and whether any further hacking attempts will be made. The latter might not have a real impact on local government elections themselves, but to trust in (digital) democracy in general.


On the election of Donald Trump

Posted: November 9th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: diversity, elections, governance, politics, technology, united states | No Comments »

My take is that the election of Trump was a loud message of disapproval from a signficant part of the electorate to the political elite, which had formed a closed, clientelist and thus undemocratic system. In a world where people have an increased expectation of more equal access to power, those closed systems are unappealing, especially to those left out. And those people are very much happy to destroy the system, just because they can. It is somewhat difficult to understand for those within the system or benefitting from it, but they should. In the US elections the choice was also so clearly between the candidate that embodies the establishment and an absolute outsider, so this was rather easy. I do not think that people will get what they wanted, but as a message it could have been worth it.

If one wants to avoid such things then one needs to increase diversity and inclusion within political parties to involve people from different backgrounds and open the whole thing up to a larger variety of people. In order for democracy to survive, parties have to be reformed from the hierarchical “old-boys-clubs” to modern networked, transparent and democratic institutions. In the UK, Labour has done some of this after much controversy and rebellion from those supporting the status quo. But that is just one part of it.

There is also a need to talk about elections and political representation as such in the ICT age, and not talking about potentially damaging pseudo-reforms like internet voting or direct digital democracy, but a substantial upgrade of representative democracy for the digital age. Perhaps we do not need regular elections, but just a way to trigger elections when enough of the population is no longer happy or when there is a stasis. Perhaps we need to re-think self-governance beyond the nation-state, to involve in the equation trans/supranational modes of governance. Somehow the mismatch between self-government aspirations of individuals who belong to different governance spheres and the corresponding dismal performance of democratic institutions or non-existence of those should be settled in a way that still resembles representative democracy.


Estonia’s new president

Posted: August 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, politics | 1 Comment »

It is likely that on 24 September Estonia will get a new president. Although the position is not especially powerful, the media frenzy is going ahead full steam. There have been numerous presidential debates with wannabe candidates as the convoluted process means that it is not really clear who is or becomes a candidate until very late in the process (and there is a possibility for a dark horse candidate to come days before the elections). The president is elected either by a supermajority of the Parliament or, failing that, a special electoral body consisting of parliament members and local council members, after which the elections revert to the parliament.

As expected, none of the candidates were able to surpass the high threshold in the Parliament earlier this week, so all eyes turn now to the electoral body, which convenes on 24 September and where a simple majority of eligible voters is required. The electoral body consists of all 101 members of parliament plus 234 representatives from the local governments, which means that the winning candidates needs 168 votes, provided that all turn up to vote. There is a first round where anyone who has support of 21 members can be voted for and a second round between the two more successful candidates (provided that none of the candidates got the majority already in the first round).

Current president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, an aspiring hipster/tech evangelist/Columbia-educated journalist ends his 10 year term of office with more successes than failures. Ilves was popular among the political elites for not rocking the boat too much and providing stability during difficult times (both during the financial crisis and political financing scandal surrounding the government party). He also enjoyed the support of the creative and startup circles (and likewise supported them enthusiastically) and was overall an excellent promoter of Estonia in the West, and especially the United States (but there were no significant efforts to engage with Russia or develop opportunities in Asia or other up-and-coming areas of the world).

Within the country, he unfortunately did not have the perceived intellectual gravitas of Lennart Meri or the folksiness of Arnold Rüütel, which meant he struggled to connect with the population of the country where he had not grown up in or, indeed, lived in for much of his life. This meant that his positive interventions during hotly discussed moral debates surrounding same-sex civil unions and the refugee crisis did not resonate or get much traction. It is curious how absent the discussion of Ilves’ presidency has been in the presidential debates. Perhaps Ilves was ahead of his time, a postmaterial president in a country where the majority of people hold survival values.

The field of candidates to succeed Ilves as president is large and none of them are seen as his direct successors. Political parties seem to view presidential elections more as a possibility to shore up and win supporters, rather than genuinely care about who gets to be president. There is intense intrigue and politicking to the delight of journalists who have been able to use the presidential election to get attention during otherwise boring summer months.

Among the current or former more serious candidates currently are (in alphabetic order):

  1. Mart Helme: a former ambassador to Russia who has found new prominence as the head of a small anti-immigration conservative-populist party EKRE. He has been measured during the campaign, because his support is rather small. The elections have helped him to gain supporters to his party and ideology.
    Chances: It is unlikely that he becomes one of the main contenders, although EKRE enjoys more support in the rural areas, which have disproportionate representation in the electoral body, than in cities. He might need further support from other parties to even run in the electoral body.
  2. Allar Jõks: former populist Chancellor of Justice (ombudsman + constitutional rights body) is a lawyer that has engaged in some controversial court cases (including Estonia’s first SLAPP case). He has been historically close to the ailing conservative IRL party, which has presented him as a candidate in the parliament together with the new Free Party, which is mostly made up of former IRL members. Billed as an anti-establishment figure, his views to some issues such as same-sex civil union bill contrast with those parties that support his candidature.
    Chances: At least some establishment parties have seen him as enough of a threat to prevent him from becoming one of the two candidates that get to the electoral body automatically. This means that his future depends on whether he can get enough supporters to be successful beyond the two parties that proposed him, and to hold on to those two.
  3. Marina Kaljurand: a former diplomat (including ambassador to Russia during the Bronze soldier crisis) who became Minister for Foreign Affairs a little over a year ago. Although not a member of the Reform party, she fills the position that belongs to the Reform Party under current coalition government. Some see her as not a political candidate that could unite all Estonians (including the sizeable Estonian Russian minority). She lacks experience in politics and can be tough to swallow for Estonian nationalists because of her Latvian-Russian descent. She is strongly pro-European and pro-human rights, but is seen as being able to also deal with the Eastern neighbour. She would be the first female president of Estonia and is supported mainly by the new generation of politicians.
    Chances: The Reform party did not present or support her during the parliament rounds and decided to not support her as it did not want to split its vote between two candidates. It is not clear if she will be running in the electoral body, as she is in a kind of Bernie Sanders-like situation. Her success depends on the outcome of the internal struggle within the Reform party, which so far has not been favourable to her.
  4. Siim Kallas: a prominent member of the 90s political elite, the founder and honorary chairman of the Reform Party, former Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister of Finance. After spending a decade as the Estonian member of the European Commission, he has very good credentials in foreign affairs and huge experience in politics. The time spent in Brussels has influenced the values he holds. In Estonian politics, he has been tainted with a financing scandal, which also follows him now, decades later, as well as being absent for a long time. Although offered to become a Prime Minister two and a half years ago, he suddenly dropped out. Kallas is the candidate of the business elite and the older politicians, but connecting to a wider, younger audience might prove difficult.
    Chances: He has been quite transparently pushing for the presidency for a long time and is currently the favourite of the political elite. As he was one of the two more successful candidates in the parliament, he is automatically running on 24 September. However, he needs more support than just the Reform party and it is unclear if all of Marina Kaljurand’s supporters will get behind him. He is kind of like the Estonian Hillary Clinton, but has less popular support.
  5. Eiki Nestor: the current speaker of the Parliament and former Minister of Social Affairs is a veteran social democrat politican and one of the most long-standing members of the Parliament in Estonia. Credited as the founder of Estonian pension system, he is known as a hard-working politician that gets things done. However, he has never been too popular among the public and refuses to communicate as a politician. He could have been the Estonian Bernie Sanders, but lacks populist charisma and is too much entangled with the establishment.
    Chances: Nobody really sees big chances for him to win or even become a candidate during the electoral body. It is more likely that the social democrats will throw their support behind another candidate. He has already provided visibility to the Social Democrats during the process.
  6. Mailis Reps: a former Minister of Education and a long-time Member of Parliament is the candidate of the centre-left/populist Centre Party, which is undergoing severe internal power struggle to depose Edgar Savisaar, another Estonian political icon. Reps can connect easily with regular voters and can be folksy and populist, if needed. Her foreign policy experience is related mostly to her long-term work at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, meaning she is well aware of human rights struggles and issues.
    Chances: She is the second candidate that was automatically included on 24 September. Nobody really expects her to become president, but she has used the elections in a remarkable way to grow her support and show her as the successor to Edgar Savisaar in the Centre Party. If she became president, it would be a loss for her party. This means it is likely she will throw her support behind someone else if there is enough political gain or is quite happy to lose out to the eventual winner in the second place.

Other, less-significant past and current candidates include Reform party MEP Urmas Paet, the descending chairman of the Centre Party Edgar Savisaar, National Auditor Alar Karis and controversial author Kaur Kender. None of them have a realistic chance of being running in the electoral body. There is also a possibility that someone completely different will rise as a compromise candidate, but it is unlikely that this happens because of the preceding media campaign.

The outcome of the process so far seems to be growing support for direct elections for the president, which would only create more tension and instability. In terms of outcome, as it stands now it seems that Siim Kallas has the highest chances to win in the electoral body, where a simple majority of voters is necessary. However, the situation remains unpredictable.


The President of Exclusion

Posted: March 1st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, politics, things that suck | No Comments »

This year, Estonia will get a new president. This position is largely ceremonial, with very few executive or legislative powers except the possibility to block the proclamation of laws which do not conform to the Constitution. Despite this, the position of the president is seen as in an important symbolic role for the elites, mostly due to the persons that have fulfilled this before.

The current president Toomas Hendrik Ilves has been a liberal moderniser, supporting publicly same-sex partnerships and acceptance of refugees, which are not popular positions. His profile has been more to give voice to Estonia (and himself) abroad and has achieved a lot. This means he is seen favorably by the liberal elites, as well as future minded technologists. For others, his last few years have been overshadowed by his private life.

The president of Estonia is also weak in terms of democratic legitimacy. He is elected by a supermajority of the parliament, which is usually difficult to achieve, or, failing that, an ad hoc electoral body which includes also representatives of local governments in addition to members of parliament.

The institution also carries historical baggage. The first president of Estonia was Konstantin Päts,  who in 1934 overthrew the existing constitutional order and established authoritarian rule. In 1938 he was ‘elected’ president, being the only candidate, because only three state institutions were able to nominate a candidate (these all nominated him) and all political parties were banned. After WWII Estonia had fallen under Soviet Union rule and when it became independent again, the institution of the President was re-established, but this time having totally different powers.

The biggest issue with the legitimacy of the institution relates to that fact that president can only be someone who was born Estonian citizen, i.e. at least one of her or his parents should have Estonian citizenship. This means that current president Toomas Hendrik Ilves qualifies, even though he had been born in Stockholm, educated and brought up in the United States and had not lived in Estonia until he was 40 years old. He also had US citizenship until 1993.

Compare this to one of the more popular Estonian Russian politicians Yana Toom, who was born in Soviet Estonia and has lived in Estonia all her life. Her parents had moved to Estonia during the Soviet era and thus she did not get Estonian citizenship until 2006, when she received it for special services to the Estonian state (most Russians have the option to naturalise, but some have also taken Russian citizenship or remained stateless). In the European Parliament elections in 2014 she was the fourth most popular candidate and was elected as the first Estonian Russian MEP. Unlike Toomas Hendrik Ilves, she will never be able to run for president according to the Constitution, as cannot any other naturalised citizens who are predominantly Estonian Russians, which is ca 16% of the citizens (many more Russians who have been born in Estonia do not have Estonian citizenship, i.e. are either stateless or have Russian citizenship).

The president is the only state institution in Estonia which has this requirement, and this requirement did not exist the 1938 Constitution. It is, however, not the only distinction between Estonian citizens who were those at birth and those who have been naturalised. The citizenship of those who have been naturalised can be taken away in certain situations, which leaves them in position that is vulnerable and produces instability.

It is difficult for me to imagine how it must feel like to be born and live all your life in a country and be denied the right to run for the position of the president just because you happen to belong to a minority. It seems an injustice to me. So even though I generally agree with the liberal stance of the current president, the injustice in who gets to be president taints the whole institution and undermines its legitimacy.

P.S. Yes, there are similar limitations in the US (which some people exploit to question the suitability and discredit presidential candidates), but in the US the system of citizenship is different. Anyone born in the US gets automatic US citizenship. Even so, I also think that the US limitation is unfair and goes against what the US stands for. President Schwarzenegger could have been great.


Estonian democracy in 2015: reflections on parliamentary elections

Posted: June 24th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, governance, human rights, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

Estonia has progressed remarkably since 1991 in introducing democratic changes and adopting international standards. In recent years, however, progress has been slow and there is growing danger of erosion of democratic practices. This is worrying, especially in times of economic uncertainty and growing international tensions.

The basis of any representative liberal democracy are free and fair elections. The latest parliamentary elections took place on 1 March 2015 and on 29 May the OSCE/ODIHR election monitoring mission issued their final report. The report received no media coverage and raised no discussions in Estonia, although the conclusions paint a not so positive picture of representative democracy in Estonia. The missionwas limited only to three areas: internet voting, campaign finance and participation of national minorities.

Internet voting

Estonia has built an international reputation for its Internet voting system, which amounted to about 30% of the votes cast. However, a detailed examination by OSCE/ODIHR experts shows a lack of transparency, formalisation of procedures and other significant problems that continue to be ignored by Estonia when it comes to Internet voting. Surely, Internet voting system, if used, should be better regulated and more secure than regular elections, not vice versa.

One of the problem is the lack of transparency of the work of the newly created electronic voting committee, to which there are no formal qualification criteria of membership. In essence, an aspiring dictator could influence the appointments made there and there are very little ways how to ensure that the EVC is independent and balanced.

There is also very little formalisation of the organisation of Internet voting: there are no deadlines or formal procedures related to software development, testing and updates. Shockingly, there is also no backup plans in case a catastrophic event occurs at the server location, which could disrupt voting and cause a significant loss of votes (basically the votes given after the daily backup to a CD; there is no mirroring to another location for example).

There is no end-to-end certification of the system by an independent body, the full audit reports that cover only parts of the system are not made public.  There is still also no end-to-end verifiability of the vote without losing the secrecy of the vote, which means that there is no way to check whether the votes were allocated to the candidate that the person intended to vote for.

The problems with Internet voting are such that still, Estonia remains the only country to use it in an election where the stakes are so high (i.e. main parliamentary elections). Even in a more developed democracy, such system would be problematic on a technical level as the risks are too high, but it seems ill-advised to use it in the form it is today in a country which has only a short record of democracy. Perhaps the reason why Estonia has been able to get away with this, is not because Estonia is so advanced technologically, but because it is not so advanced in terms of democratic practices and respect for the right to vote.

Political party and campaign finance

In terms of party and campaign finances, some progress has been made. However, the report has some good recommendations in it:

  • the limitation of how much can a single person donate in a year,
  • better regulation of how and when public funds during the campaign period,
  • reporting requirements by third parties (applicable for example to anti-gay lobby groups which promoted specific candidates),
  • allow the national election committee, rather than police, to judge on what constitutes outdoor political advertising.

Significantly, the report maintains that the ban on outdoor advertising is not working and thus restricts freedom of expression. The report observes that the justification of the ban by the Supreme Court did not hold up:

In practice, the ruling has not reduced campaign expenditures, as parties displayed posters before the official election period and shifted expenses to other forms of advertising, primarily television.

The report also included some comments regarding the Political Party Finance Supervision Committee (disclosure: I am an alternate member of the Committee appointed by the Chancellor of Justice). The Committee could be influenced as the members do not have tenure and none of the members work full time there. The Committee is also hobbled by lack of resources and investigative powers.

Participation by national minorities

The political participation by the large ethnic Russian minority (ca 25% of the population) continues to be a great challenge for Estonia. The election observers noted that, except for two parties, less than 10% of the candidates were from a minority background. They also expressed concern that election-related official information was only available in the Estonian language, and not in Russian or English. This was also true of the electronic voting interface, which could account for the low level of Internet votes in the predominantly Russian-speaking areas.

The ca 85 000 stateless people living in Estonia continue to lack basic political rights, such as the freedom of association, because they are not allowed to belong to a political party (although they could donate money to them). The OSCE/ODIHR team recommends to step up efforts of naturalisation of stateless people in order to give them basic suffrage rights. However, Estonia’s citizenship policies are among the most restrictive in Europe, and there seems to be no political will to change this, so this issue will stay for a long time.

Conclusion

The state of Estonian elections, based on the three themes that were covered by the OSCE/ODIHR report leaves a lot of room for improvements. It should be noted that the report did not cover other topics, such as the restriction of the right to vote for prisoners and other ongoing issues. In some areas, such as party finance and certain aspects of Internet voting, gradual improvements are possible, if there is willingness on the side of the Estonian authorities to consider these. However, in the area of national minorities and also major aspects of Internet voting, there are larger things in play. In terms of national minorities only a fundamental rethink of the citizenship policies would eliminate the issues and enhance the political participation of minorities. In the area of Internet voting, which is more of a PR project of the Estonian state, a mindset change in the attitudes towards technology and constructive criticism of e-Stonia needs to take place.

The right to vote is a basic and fundamental human right. One can question whether the continued limitation of suffrage to exclude a part of the Russian minority population from political participation and usage of a somewhat flawed and risky Internet voting system primarily for international image-building purposes is compatible with the preservation and strengthening of that human right.

Read:

Final Report of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Expert Team on Parliamentary Elections in Estonia on 1 March 2015


The danger posed by the far right in the Estonian Parliament

Posted: March 7th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, human rights, politics, things that suck | No Comments »

Last Sunday’s parliamentary elections resulted in a far right party Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond (EKRE) winning 7 seats in the 101 member Estonian parliament. Soon after the win, several scandals have rocked the party, as their record and previous statements are being analysed by the media, bringing out extreme views ranging from questioning the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust to discussions about positive sides of German Nazi politics. It appears that at least one of their campaign promises is mirrors one from that era. Aro Velmet has analysed why the media, analysts and other parties did not want to know or care about this before.

It would be easy to explain the success of EKRE as a counter-reaction to entrenched liberal democractic values or opposition of the same-sex partnership law by a vocal, frustrated minority that has failed to keep up with the times and adopt European values, but that does not tell the whole story (or explain why there are so many relatively successful young people involved). I use Cas Mudde’s framework to show that EKRE is much more mainstream (and thus dangerous) than the simplistic explanations show.

The ideological underpinnings of EKRE are fairly standard far right stuff: a mixture of nativism, authoritarianism and populism. Nativism plays an important role for EKRE, their leaders have emphasised time and again that they believe that people who belong to one ethnic group should live in their own land with their nation and not somewhere else. Nativism is a rather mainstream way of thinking in Estonia because of historical traumas, and many parties exploit it in one way or the other (but not as forcefully as EKRE). Authoritarinism is present in their election manifesto in which they strive to fight with “anti-state activities” and populism is embodied in their anti-establishment rhetoric, arguing that the “homogenuous will of the people” should override “undemocratic” institutional constraints or constitutional protections for minorities (most clearly evidenced by the demand to hold a referendum on same-sex partnership regulation). Each of these ideologies hold wide support in Estonia, which means that ideologically EKRE lands on a fertile ground and has considerable potential to grow.

In terms of nativist attitudes of the public, it is not a secret that tolerance towards people with a migrant background is low in Estonia. Even though Estonia gets the least number of asylum applicants in the EU (ca 100), public opinion surveys show that people perceive immigration as a threat to the Estonian nation. Strict citizenship and naturalisation policies have resulted in low integration rates for the ethnic Russians that make up ca 25% of the population. Fuelling ethnic based antagonism is still the main modus operandi of all parties to win votes at elections, depriving people of real free choices. Taking account of all the above, it is clear that nativist attitudes are present in Estonian mainstream.

Authoritarian attitudes are also present, people prefer a strong ruler and would like to regulate the behaviour of others even if it does not concern them. For example, the ban on drinking alcohol in public was quickly reinstated after protests in the media. Also there is wide support for harsh punishments for criminals.

Anti-establishment attitudes are also gaining ground, both because of fatigue with the long-term rule of the Reform party, the disconnect between successful elites and less successful masses. There are low levels of trust of the parliament and government. EKRE probably would have recieved more votes, if the anti-establishment centre-right Free Party had not also taken a lot of the protest vote.

Thus it would be wrong to claim that EKRE represents ideology or attitudes that are shared only by a minority. They gain support by presenting the same basic ideology that is espoused by mainstream parties, but in a purer, more ideological form. They exploit the same basic attitudes, but in more extreme ways.

The scary conclusion is that EKRE still has vast potential in terms of ideology and attitudes; what is holding them back is their lack of professionalism in messaging and internal organisation. Now that they receive funding from the state, they can work on these organisational matters. It is a stark warning for all centrist and mainstream parties that in order to defend liberal democracy, they have to let go of the previous antagonisms and be much more engaged with the public and willing to clearly articulate more value-based messages on issues that are not usually considered important by them.

The mainstream parties should not allow the far right to monopolise divisive issues, because this is what makes them thrive. EKRE was the only party that took up the civil partnership law and made opposition to it into their issue. Not having any other party to challenge them on this issue was the reason they were able to gain support quickly.


A Russian-language TV channel would be a mistake for Estonia

Posted: November 22nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, governance, human rights, politics, things that suck, thoughts | 1 Comment »

The Estonian public discourse is engulfed in fear and paranoia about Russia, even more so today than usual. This is understandable because of the Russian actions in Ukraine and other countries and because of the large ethnic Russian population living in Estonia. According to the results of the latest census, there are ca 890 000 ethnic Estonians living in Estonia and ca 320 000 ethnic Russians. All other ethnic minorities have smaller numbers.

Many Russians (especially the majority that has either a Russian citizenship or is stateless) have little to no political representation rights, because non-citizens are not allowed to belong to political parties, vote or stand as candidates in the parliamentary elections and stand as candidates in the local elections (they can vote in local elections, however). This was a decision made by the Estonian political elites when Estonia regained its independence, to ensure smooth integration with Western political structures and escape influence of Russia. These decisions made 23 years ago have resulted in fast economic development (at least in terms of neo-liberal model) and membership of EU, NATO and OECD. The cost has been the political disenfranchisement of the ethnic Russian population which has fueled societal segregation and a created a flawed democracy.

Recently, however, the Estonian political elite has become worried that the Russian minority might be used against Estonian territorial integrity in a way similar to what happened in Crimea and is happening in Eastern Ukraine. The prevailing view is that many Estonian Russians watch Russian TV stations and are thus subjected to anti-Western propaganda. Thus it is necessary to offer them a more balanced and objective media channel, which is why the Estonian government decided last week that Estonian public broadcasting ERR will get 4 million euros to create a Russian-language TV channel.

This is fundamentally a wrong decision, albeit a convenient one.

It is a wrong decision because it treats Estonian Russians as objects not subjects and reinforces the idea that they are the problem and their minds need to be changed, very much similar to the employment benefits reform, which also saw the main obstacle for disabled people not working the lack of motivation of people with disabilities. This paternalistic view reinforces the understanding that people are not capable of thinking for themselves, that they can be influenced by propaganda and that it is the governments job to tell people what is right and what is wrong, who is enemy of Estonia and who is not.

It also creates a false impression that there is one ‘objective’ way of looking at things, which can easily lead into propaganda. I mean, if the Estonian government is creating a TV channel, which it says is not to be used for propaganda, then that they even have to mention this makes one doubt the objectivity of it. Coupled with the recent serious discussions on the need for “psychological defense” for Estonia, impartiality on issues of integration seems to be impossible if not intentionally then because of the difficult historical context. This is such a difficult topic for Estonia that wading into it cost Jürgen Ligi his job as the Minister of Finance a few weeks ago.

There are no easy solutions, because all the effective options need more equal treatment of Estonians with Russians, which is more difficult for Estonians to handle, because of historical wrongs perpetrated against Estonians and Estonia.

If I was in charge, this is what I would do to make sure that there is a democratic and independent Estonia:

1. Ensure that any and all instances of discrimination of Russians (and other minorities) in Estonia can receive an adequate legal response, either in employment or in other areas. Investigate in detail where are the more systematic problems (rental market, recruitment) and deal with them. Invest money in this, because this means a more just society that is more stable. The Estonian equality body (Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner) suffers from chronic lack of funding (it receives annually ca 70 000 euros from the state budget), last year only 2 people turned to the office with complaints based on ethnic or national origin. There are very few cases in courts and employment dispute commissions. This means that there are massive number of unresolved discrimination claims. If we deal with these claims and give access to remedies, the perception of Estonia discriminating against Russians can be easily countered.

2. Ensure that all people that live and intend to continue living in Estonia are part of the Estonian public sphere. This means that there has to be a solution to statelessness and citizenship issues. It is possible to create a radical plan to ensure that in 10 years almost all people who are permanently living in Estonia have (at least) Estonian citizenship. If there is enough time to prepare and everyone knows that it will happen, the political parties will have to be more inclusive or face the loss of the Russian votes to others. Any other solution for integration does not work, because citizenship is fundamental. This means that many more Russians will get a say in Estonian politics, which is more democratic and leads to a better governance on the whole. If Russians are 25% of Estonian people, then this should be also reflected in government, its policies and resource allocation.

3. Spend considerably more on educating all citizens to make up their own minds. The best guarantee of the continuation of Estonian democratic statehood is a citizenry of independent autonomous individuals that are able to make up their own minds. So what is needed is education of people to recognise propaganda, to evaluate and analyse information based on source and strength of argument, to make rational, research-based, not emotional decisions. I see every day that people cannot cope with all the information, they are unable to understand what is authentic and what is astroturfing, many people seem to lack functional reading skills and critical thinking is not appreciated or taught. Media has a key role in this, but not only. This also means that civil society must play a larger role than the state-dependent sideshow it is today.

Thus it is my argument that the Russian-language TV channel is really meant to placate the majority population that something is being done. It will have no impact on the situation or mindset of Estonian Russians, because it conveniently misidentifies the problem, as there is not enough political courage and/or will to do something that has a real impact.

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The elections that nobody cared about

Posted: May 15th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, european union, governance, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

Today the European Parliament elections started in Estonia with the pre-voting and e-voting. Leaving aside the debate sparked by the questioning of the integrity of the e-voting system, it is quite remarkable how uninteresting the European Parliament elections have been for everyone: the general public, the political parties and the candidates themselves. Sure, there have been interesting candidates. Sure, the campaigns have reached a new low. But there does not seem to be anything remotely fresh in these elections. The EP elections have become a sideshow, a marginal affair. Why?

There are some global reasons:

  1. The constitutional nature of the EU: Joseph Weiler has written about the legitimacy crisis and why the EP elections does not solve this. Due to the nature of the EU, the results of the EP elections do not automatically and directly translate into changes in the EU level (because the Council also has a say). Even the Commission president might not come from the party that gets the most votes.
  2. The lack of pan-European polis. There are no pan-European political debates or media space which would bind people together in a common discussion. There is no platform in which to commonly discuss European issues: instead there are 28 different debates on different issues going on in 28 different member states.
  3. The disconnect between EU level political parties and national level political parties. The campaign in Estonia has been very bizarre, because some people talk about European issues and others about national ones. This complexity deters voters.

Specific reasons in Estonia:

  1. Six seats is a really marginal number. People cannot see how six members out of 750 can have any kind of influence over EU policy. They are also divided between different parties, so basically there is also no interest from any of the EU level parties, because the two big ones are sure to get at least one seat, liberals two and the other two are the only ones that are in limbo.
  2. Extreme disconnect between EU level and national level in elections. Two of the main opponents in the Estonian campaign are actually going to be in the same political group in the EP. The Reform Party (ALDE group) is campaigning mostly against the Centre party (also ALDE group).
  3. E-voting has probably made voting less relevant, more ephemeral. Although e-voting might increase the turnout (although there is research suggesting otherwise), it seems to lower also the overall relevance of voting as a ritual. Thus it becomes a mere functional, mechanical process in which customers click to choose the best government that provides best service (boosting clientelism and lowering the meaningfulness of the democratic processes).
  4. Parties are saving resources for the elections that truly matter. In one year there will be national parliamentary elections, which is the main focus of the political parties. EP elections are used mostly as a testing ground for messages and new faces, not as a separate election.
  5. Other topics overshadow the lackluster campaign. The Russia-Ukraine conflict, the debate surrounding the new government, the draft gender neutral co-habitation law, the Eurovision song contest and other topics take up space from EP elections.

As a true European, I hope that the EP elections will go well and the voter turnout increases even despite the lack of attention to the campaign. But it does show that something fundamental has to change in the electoral process and the architecture of EU in order for the EP elections to truly matter.

P.S. An idea how to increase voter turnout (not necessarily the quality of the debate though) is to allocate seats based on voter turnout. In this way each country should get a minimum number of guaranteed seats in the EP, but they can increase this number if a certain threshold of voter turnout percentage is surpassed. This requires, of course, more uniform election procedures in all MS. You could not have compulsory voting like in Belgium. And probably also no e-voting.