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.


Regulating technologies for the future

Posted: June 4th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: education, governance, human rights, politics, privacy, technology, thoughts | No Comments »
There is going to be some sort of regulation of the new technologies, sooner or later. Governments are getting involved and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Libertarian-minded people might not agree with this, but in the deployment phase of any techno-economic paradigm (as illustrated by Carlota Perez) governments are going to have to step in to guarantee the success of the deployment for all.
In the previous TEP, this was “The New Deal”, Marshall Plan and the development of global institutions. This resulted in the post-War Golden Age in the US and Western Europe, with the social safety net and a strong middle class. The one before (The Belle Epoque) was more of a Gilded Age, which benefited only a few.
The ICT TEP, which we are in the middle of, is going to be the greatest of those so far, because for the first time to paradigm shift is more or less global, impacting billions of people at once.
  • We need regulation to ensure that new technologies reach all people of the world and not benefit just the few (enacting strong net neutrality rules for example).
  • We need smart regulation to prevent tech monopolies from abusing their position.
  • We need rules that provide public oversight and participation.
  • We need to make sure that new technologies are not going to be used for unethical and immoral ends.
  • We need to make sure that there are strong privacy rules protect the individual, their freedom and autonomy.
  • We need to make sure that technology does not allow totalitarian and extremist propaganda to isolate individuals and destroy solidarity, trust and social cohesion that is more necessary that ever in an interconnected and interdependent world.
  • We also need to change our existing regulations to fit with the new world, in all levels of governance. Otherwise we are sailing the oceans with outdated maps (as Seyla Benhabib so well compared the lack of guidance that international law gives us in a new era of cosmopolitanism). This requires creativity and imagination, an open mind.
However, there are also those that want to step in and regulate in ways that work against those goals. There are those who want regulation to go the other way: expanding and legalising mass-surveillance, ban strong encryption, protect monopolistic technologies, prevent or limit access to technologies by poorer countries or help to deny the voice and participation for minorities and women.
The fight is not for or against regulation: not having rules is not a sustainable option. The fight is about what kind of rules we will have; whether there will be those that protect human dignity, freedom and rights, advance solidarity and mutual respect and understanding; or those that divide and threaten, limit freedoms and rights.

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.


Brexit and the cosmopolitan world order

Posted: June 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: european union, governance, human rights, philosophy, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

There are those who see the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union as a prelude to turning back to the times when the main sovereign actor in the world is the (nation) state. However, resorting to the intergovernmental model is not the only option to analyse Brexit, the other views (cosmopolitan pluralist, minimal world state and cosmopolitan democracy) should be analysed as well.

Intergovernmentalists probably see Brexit as a natural consequence of a political union that has stretched too far. There can be no (democratic) legitimate government above the nation state level and thus any attempts at political unions such as the EU are futile if not harmful, this thinking goes.

The negotiation of national parliamentary sovereignty and binding supranational rules have been unsuccessful in the EU-UK case and thus it is only normal that the state that has delegated powers to the EU can now take those back and leave. In this traditionalist thinking, the citizens of the UK had all the rights to vote for Brexit, because it is they who are ultimately in charge of the fate of their country and whatever they do (even if it harms themselves or others) is right.

The cosmopolitan pluralists believe that (nation) state is over or in decline and no longer the centre of sovereign power. Therefore power has been shifting to multiple other levels of government, global, regional, subnational, corporate multinational etc. The state is just one of the levels of a pluralist, complex, interdependent, networked world which does not have a centre of power.

From this perspective, Brexit as a decision by referendum of the UK citizens was unfair: in a cosmopolitan plural world order everyone who is affected should get a say and stakeholders consulted. In an interdependent world why are the citizens of one entity allowed to screw things up for everyone else? Scottish independence is a neat example of the subnational levels of governance exerting influence beyond the nation state. Even if the UK left, this does not mean that we should not continue to democratise the supranational levels of governance (i.e. the EU) and continue building a strong European polity.

The proponents of the minimal world state model are of the view that there are certain universal core principles that apply to all states and all people, which cannot be derogated from and the breach of which will limit state sovereignty. Universal human rights at their core are as such limiting state sovereignty: humanitarian interventions can be used to prevent mass grave human rights violations, such as genocide, in a sovereign state. Other violations might bring sanctions and trade restrictions. This minimal world state is institutionalised through the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly (and other UN bodies) and includes international NGOs as powerful actors. The deliberations at the global level in other matters than human rights as well (millennium development goals) exerts soft pressure to states to comply.

Brexit does not really have a consequence in terms of the minimal world state model, because both the EU and the UK remain a part of it and will need to comply with the core requirements. The influence of the EU and the UK in the world state level might be decreased because of the weakening of the position of the EU.

Cosmopolitan democracy model requires democratic decision-making in all levels, including global. This model sees the future creation of a world parliament and limits state sovereignty only to those issues that are internal to that state. In this case states are subordinated to a global democratic entity and transnational solidarity is the norm, because most problems are not confined to the borders of any one state.

Brexit is a setback to cosmopolitan democracy if one counts the EU as a precursor to eventual global democracy. In a fully developed cosmopolitan democracy Brexit would not matter because nation states would not matter either. The UK leaving the EU would be similar to a redrafting of the administrative borders of a county or district, which does not have global impact.

In conclusion: none of the models of international political theory offer a complete solution. The world is slowly turning away from the intergovernmental model, but neither the minimal world state and cosmopolitan pluralism models are fully existing yet. And even though cosmopolitan democracy is as an ideal an interesting one, it seems to be a long way to go before it can be realised. Brexit can be read as a countertrend towards intergovernmentalism, but it (and the reactions to it) also reflect the unsuitability of the current international political frameworks to deliver. The confusion and reactions in different countries (and the fact that we in Estonia also care deeply about Brexit) can be seen as supporting the emergence of cosmopolitan pluralism as the main framework, but as it also is vague and confusing it does not offer much help. Minimal world state does not seem to be affected much (even though prevalence of nativism might mean even less interest in responsiblity to protect doctrine and thus weakening of the applicability of the model).

Read more:

Zürn, Michael. “Survey Article: Four Models of a Global Order with Cosmopolitan Intent: An Empirical Assessment.” Journal of Political Philosophy 24.1 (2016): 88-119.


UK and EU: a horrible end

Posted: June 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: european union, governance, politics, things that suck, thoughts | No Comments »

With the UK referendum result, it makes sense to look at the troubled relationship that the UK and the EU have had, which might put yesterday’s vote into a perspective.

The UK did not join the EEC in 1958 with the original six because it thought that the much looser European Free Trade Area worked better for them and because it wanted to preserve its existing US and Commonwealth (colonial) trade links and relationships. This was a mistake because that meant that they did not have any say on the initial design of the EU institutions, thus voluntarily sidelining themselves and never being able to call themselves a founding member (which apparently still is relevant) and thus paved the way for the Franco-German engine of European integration.

However, they realised their mistake quickly and already in 1961 applied to join the EEC for the first time. This could have still given them a lot of leverage, because the EEC just did not appear in 1958, but over a gradual 10-year transition period. The French president Charles de Gaulle (in agreement with West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer) vetoed UK’s accession. The UK tried again in 1967, but were again vetoed by France. So for the crucial formation period of the EU, the UK did not have any say on its development.

The UK accession negotiations only became possible after 1969 when Charles De Gaulle had been forced out. So it finally joined in 1973 with Denmark and Ireland (and almost Norway). In 1975 they got worried about the loss of sovereignty and organised a referendum whether to stay or not. They decided to stay with a large, 2 to 1 margin.

Then came Margaret Thatcher, who essentially created the reluctant, half-hearted and antagonistic membership status that the UK has had so far. She fought with the most influential Commission president Jacques Delors and in 1990 her opposition to Europe caused her government to fall and ended her rule of the UK.

For the revolutionary 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which created the EU as a political union, the next PM John Major fought to have the opt-out from the euro and EU’s social rights, continuing the strategy of being a reluctant partner.

Tony Blair came into power in 1997 and was initially much more pro-EU, preparing not for a Brexit, but instead a referendum on the UK’s membership of the eurozone, which, of course, never happened. He also signed up to the social rights aquis. As a reaction, the Conservatives turned more eurosceptic and UKIP started to make gains, winning seats in 1999 European Parliament elections.

Then came the Iraq invasion, which the UK supported, but France and Germany opposed. This caused a lot of mistrust and probably also re-awakened concern in France and Germany regarding where the true loyalties of the UK are. Blair never recovered after that in the eyes of many EU leaders and Gordon Brown did not do much to repair the relationship.

In 2010 David Cameron became the PM and made a series of disastrous decisions on the EU (in order to hold support of the growing eurosceptic faction within the Tory party).

Already in 2009 he had engineered the change of alliances for the Conservative Party in the European Parliament, from the dominant European People’s Party (currently 215 MEPs) to the European Conservatives and Reformists faction (currently 74 MEPs). This meant that the Tory party MEPs were no longer in the same EPP group as Merkel’s CDU or French UMP (now Republicans) and other mainstream right-wing parties, but instead now were in the same fringe group with right-populist parties like the True Finns of Finland and Law and Justice (PiS) of Poland.

In 2011 Cameron angered other EU leaders by vetoing the amendments to the EU treaties on fiscal responsibility forcing the other EU countries to create the European Fiscal Compact outside of EU law. In 2013 he pledged to hold a Brexit referendum, after sustaining long pressure from within his party.

After the 2014 European Parliament elections, he fought against the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker to the president of European Commission, calling him “the wrong man, from yesterday”. In the end he was only joined by Hungary’s Viktor Orban in voting against Juncker who was appointed to lead the EC.

In the run-up to the UK referendum and now following the result, he not only destroyed the UK’s membership in the EU totally and weakened the EU’s prospects at the worst possible time, he has also diverted the focus of the EU from issues like the migration crisis and other urgent reforms.

Taking the above into account, perhaps a horrible end is better than endless horror, when it comes to the UK-EU relationship.


Brexit

Posted: June 23rd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Estonia, european union, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

The UK referendum on withdrawing from the European Union is a significant matter. The UK, which itself almost split less than two year ago in the Scottish independence referendum is going through processes, which almost all states in the world are going through: the movement towards multilevel interdependent governance, a sort of cosmopolitan federalism.

In a way we already have a very loose state for the world, in the form of the UN, G7, IMF, WTO and other institutional frameworks that manage the governance of an increasingly interdependent world. These institutions are opaque, bureaucratic, in many ways unfairly composed, Western-centric and deeply undemocratic, but we cannot organise peaceful living together without them. In a world facing climate change, religious and national conflicts, a global economy that also creates inequality, and rapid technological changes, no country can be an island, and decide by themselves. Without fora to discuss and decide how to tackle and manage these things, life would be much worse for everyone.

The same processes happen in the different regions of the world. The EU is perhaps the most successful example so far, but there are other economic and political unions and blocs have been formed. In trade, in addition to the EU there are EFTA, NAFTA, MERCOSUR, ASEAN, COMESA and many others; 419 different regional trade agreements, according to WTO. These have not just appeared, but serve an important need to coordinate and discuss issues that matter regionally. Here are the main different frameworks in Europe.

Supranational_European_Bodies-en.svg

Source: wikimedia

The trend is clearly in the direction of more states becoming members of more of these frameworks, because it makes sense to do so. This kind of soft-federalism is also called subsidiarity, which means that decisions are made at the level where it makes the most sense to do so, which in itself is a functional/rational approach to decision-making.

Now the (nation) state level seems to be under the most pressure. On the one hand there are forces of subsidiarity that come with globalisation and pull more and more things to the supranational level. At the same time, there is also a drive for more autonomy for sub-state government levels. In some federal states such as Germany, the US and Switzerland, this is managed pretty well. In others, there is considerable conflicts because there are people who do not think they need or want the state they are in (Catalan independence in Spain, Belgium, Scottish referendum, etc).

In parallel to this development, we also see the development of megacities, which are becoming more important than the countries that host them and where there is a huge rift between the cosmopolitan/urban/digital nomads living in those cities and nativists who live in the surronding countryside.

The proof that we already live in this cosmopolitan federalist world is apparent in the huge amount of interest that possible Brexit generates outside of the UK. This interest is there because what the British people decide will have consequences to other people in the world. And in this complex arrangement which has to consider many competing interests, national referendums are not the tools to decide such matters.

But there unfortunately is referendum today in the United Kingdom so I hope that the people of UK vote responsibly and take into account that they make a choice not only concerning the UK, but they make a decision that will also impact all other people in the EU as well. Distractions such as Brexit are not only going to create a lot of unhappy people whichever way the decision goes, but it also stops us from discussing issues that need to be solved together. Imagine having meeting at work about a new product, when one of the participants cannot decide whether he wants to work there or not and makes that the main discussion topic.


We need to talk about lawyers

Posted: May 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Estonia, human rights, law, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

I am a lawyer by training, I teach law and am also a member of the council of Estonian Association of Lawyers. I am proud of my profession and have contributed my small part in advancing the legal education in Estonia at Tallinn University of Technology (where I also was for a while in charge of curriculum development). I think law can play an important role in preventing harmful developments (like mass-surveillance), but sometimes law and lawyers can also fail the society they should be serving.

The on-going criminal trial of the writer Kaur Kender continues to bring out important issues related to the criminal justice system in Estonia. It appears that the prosecutor and the judge have asked during the trial (which is closed from the public) from at least one witness: “why do people waste their lives crossing boundaries?”. If true, that question is an important revelation about some parts of the law and justice system in Estonia.

In Estonia, the overwhelming majority of practising lawyers have graduated from the University of Tartu. Indeed, there was no other place to study law before Estonia re-gained its independence in 1991 and even after that government higher education policies did not (and do not) support diversification of legal education. This means that prosecutors, judges, and defence attorneys share common thinking that has been shaped by their alma mater. The same professor of criminal law has influenced nearly all lawyers in Estonian (criminal) justice system. This thinking is influenced both by the authoritarian Soviet legacy and by the legalistic and formalistic German legal tradition, which carries the thoughts of legal positivism and which became the bedrock during the transition to democratic government.

The lack of diversity of opinion and the conformist education has meant that many lawyers tend to think very much inside the box. They thus innately refuse to challenge authority: until some years ago it used to be an extremely radical proposition among lawyers to criticise the judgments of the Supreme Court. It seems that many lawyers consider themselves strict followers of the grammatical interpretation of specific rules, rather than seeing the social context and the larger goals of specific legal acts.

This is partly reinforced by the rigid legal system itself, which treats prosecutors not as people capable of independent thinking. Article 6 of the current Code of Criminal Procedure obliges the authorities to “conduct criminal proceedings upon the appearance of facts referring to a criminal offence”, even if they think that this does not make a lot of sense. Prosecutor Merika Nimmo has concluded in her analysis in an article published last year in Juridica, that “forgoing the strict application of the principle of compulsory criminal proceedings would, according to the author, undoubtedly help to design a faster, more effective and human-centred criminal procedure”.

In history, we have seen horrible results when lawyers stop thinking about the larger picture and construe their roles strictly legalistically. In the introduction of a booklet published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on “Law, Justice and the Holocaust”, historians wrote about the role of lawyers in Germany leading to Hitler’s rise to power:

Coming from a longstanding authoritarian, conservative, and nationalist tradition, judges believed deeply in reinforcing government authority, ensuring public respect for the law, and guaranteeing that state actions had a legal basis (Rechtsstaat). At the same time, they valued judicial independence in the form of protection from arbitrary or punitive removal from the bench and freedom from dictates regarding decision making. Above all, they rendered judgment based on such fundamental Western legal principles as the equality of all citizens, the right of an accused person to a fair trial, and the concept that there could be no crime or penalty without prior law.

In spite of these values, political democracy presented serious challenges to the judiciary. Many judges rejected the legitimacy of the democratic Weimar Republic, since it had come about through revolution, which they considered, by definition, a violation of the law. This attitude had long-term consequences for the republic. Judges routinely imposed harsh verdicts on left-wing defendants, whom they regarded with suspicion as revolutionary agents of various foreign powers, while acting leniently toward right-wing defendants, whose nationalist sentiments typically echoed their own. As a result, in the mid-1920s, supporters of the republic proclaimed a “crisis of trust,” demanding the temporary suspension of judicial independence and the removal of reactionary and antidemocratic judges from the bench. Judges regarded these developments with alarm, rejecting proposals for reform as a perversion of justice. Many were convinced that the criticism leveled upon them, which had come from the political left and from parliament, undermined the authority of the state.

When Hitler came to power, he promised to restore judges’ authority and shield them from criticism even as he curtailed their independence and instituted reeducation programs designed to indoctrinate jurists in the ideological goals of the party. The Nazi leadership used a series of legal mechanisms—which, in contrast to the revolutionary overthrow of power in 1918, judges tended to consider legitimate— to gradually assume and consolidate Hitler’s power. Then, step by step, and always under the guise of safeguarding the state, the Nazi leadership imposed legislation that fulfilled its ideological goals of rearmament, military expansion, and racial purification.

In reality, judges were among those inside Germany who might have effectively challenged Hitler’s authority, the legitimacy of the Nazi regime, and the hundreds of laws that restricted political freedoms, civil rights, and guarantees of property and security. And yet the overwhelming majority did not. Instead, over the 12 years of Nazi rule, during which time judges heard countless cases, most not only upheld the law but interpreted it in broad and far-reaching ways that facilitated, rather than hindered, the Nazis’ ability to carry out their agenda.

Nazi Germany is, of course, a thing of the past. But there are lessons to be learned from here. Judges, prosecutors and lawyers do not operate in a vacuum. They are human beings with beliefs, biases and opinions, which do play a role in the work of the judiciary at any country. The US judge and legal scholar Richard Posner argued after the 9/11 attacks that judges should go with the times and prioritise security over liberty:

If it is true, therefore, as it appears to be at this writing, that the events of September 11 have revealed the United States to be in much greater jeopardy from international terrorism than had previously been believed—have revealed it to be threatened by a diffuse, shadowy enemy that must be fought with police measures as well as military force—it stands to reason that our civil liberties will be curtailed. They should be curtailed, to the extent that the benefits in greater security outweigh the costs in reduced liberty. All that can reasonably be asked of the responsible legislative and judicial officials is that they weigh the costs as carefully as the benefits.

Even though I strongly disagree with the position stated above, at least these issues are discussed in the United States. In Estonia, we do have a mostly impartial judiciary according to international standards, but there has not been much discussion about the influence of the authoritarian Soviet legacy among the legal community and the impact of the prevailing conservative legal thinking due to the prevalence of legal positivism as well as the conformism and groupthink which stems from common educational background and the domination of a single law school. Such debates might turn out to be useful.

However, I also think it is equally important that the critics of the criminal justice system learn from the past and do not antagonise lawyers, as a part of the Centre party and some supporters of Kaur Kender or more lenient approach to prosecution of drug-related crimes seem to want to do, but instead work together to change the system to be more fair. It is important to learn from the past and, most of all, encourage independent, out-of-the-box thinking among lawyers as well as cultivate pluralism among legal education in Estonia. This is not only in the interests of better protection of the right to fair trial, but also for the safeguarding of the constitutional order, democracy and all other human rights.

Further reading:


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.


2015 in review

Posted: December 29th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: cool, personal, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

Here are my personal, highly subjective best of 2015 awards as a fun way of rounding up the year. Mostly meaning impact, but also subjective taste (for entertainment stuff).

Politics (European and global/western)

Politician of the year: Federica Mogherini – for her leadership during the refugee crisis and Iran negotiations.
Runners-up: Angela Merkel (for her response to the refugee crisis), Justin Trudeau (for offering hope that a new kind of politics is possible), Barack Obama (for not screwing up too much, Cuba policy, Iran, etc). Promising potential: Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders.

Political event of the year: The refugee resettlement proposal, which re-ignited discussions about the identity of Europe and brought much-needed refugee issue to the forefront.
Runner-up: Eurocrisis

Politics (Estonian)

Politician of the year: Taavi Rõivas – PM proved much more resilient and smart than anyone had expected, leading the Reform Party to electoral victory and successfully forming a government later. Adept at avoiding controversies, Merkel-style.
Runners-up: Jevgeni Ossinovski – for re-energising the social democrats, Edgar Savisaar – Tallinn mayor held onto power amid great personal, legal and political turmoil.

Political event of the year: Parliamentary elections in Estonia
Runner-up: Refugee crisis.

Law

Court judgment of the year: C-362/14 Schrems (CJEU) – huge impact all over the world for invalidating US Safe Harbour agreement, establishing further protections of privacy.
Runners-up:  Obergefell v. Hodges (SCOTUS), Delfi v. Estonia (ECtHR)

Movies

Best movie: Bridge of Spies
Runners-up: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Walk
Disappointment of the year: Spectre
Worst film of the year: Chappie

TV

Best TV series: American Horror Story: Hotel
Runners-up: Empire, Veep, Cucumber

Games (Mac, iOS)
Note: I have played very few proper video games this year. Need to get a PS4.

Game of the year: Cities: Skylines
Runners-up: Prison Architect

Music

Artist of the year: Justin Bieber
Runners-up: The Weeknd, Troye Sivan

 

Happy new year! 2016 awaits.