The hardest working man in show business
Archived Articles 22 Oct 2009 Justin PetroneEWR
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I was asked earlier this week on Eesti Terevisioon, ETV's daily morning news and entertainment program, what I thought about Estonian politics, like I could actually muster an articulate sentence in Estonian about such things.

If I had been a bit sharper at 8.20 am, after zooming north through a snowstorm in central Estonia blasting James Brown at the crack of dawn, I might have said something like this.

The most interesting dance in Estonian politics right now is taking place in Tallinn, where Edgar Savisaar's victorious Centre Party has invited Jüri Pihl's Social Democrats to negotiations on forming a center-left coalition in the Tallinn City Government.

Why is it interesting? Because if the results of the 2011 parliamentary election are anything like last week's municipal election results -- where Centre received 31.5 percent of all votes cast in Estonia, followed distantly by Reform at 16.7 percent, IRL at 13.9 percent, and SDE at 7.5 percent -- then a KESK-SDE coalition in Tallinn could be a trial run for a similar coalition in the next parliament.

In some ways, a center-left coalition in Estonian politics has been a long-time coming. For the past 10 years, Estonia has either been led by conservatives or liberals, partially due to the success of their policies and partly due to a weak, polarized political left. But, as in all parliamentary democracies, the pendulum swings. Eighteen years of Thatcher and Major in Britain gave way to the past 12 years of Blair and Brown. If Estonia is to grow up politically, it must come to terms with the idea that the national idea is bigger than its right wing politics. It can't just have the liberals and the conservatives rotating seats until the end of time.

Savisaar has earned a lot of "political capital," as W. would say, but how he spends it will have a major effect on Estonian politics. Thanks in part to his victory many parties could have less reservations about cooperating with a political force referred to as roheline koletis -- the "green monster" -- both for its colors and its approach to governance.

For SDE, which was tossed out of the ruling coalition in May, it makes sense to at least entertain the idea of a center-left coalition in Tallinn. They are in a weak position, and yet, at a national level, they did better this time around than they did in 2005. Besides, the most common critiques of Savisaar's party -- that they are arrogant, uncooperative, and out to fill their own pockets -- are often lobbed at SDE's former partners, Reform, who fired them. So what exactly do they have to lose? That was the argument SDE founder Marju Lauristin made to the party list this week.

As for the agrarian Rahvaliit and the Greens, they are in an even less favorable position. Both of these parties are on life support, any invitation to share power with the big vote winner will probably be welcomed. Having party members in power creates the impression of competence, and competence is a major factor in winning a person's vote. For all of these parties, the opportunity to have even a little power could translate to future electoral victory. Rahvaliit, as of my writing this, has already been asked to merge with the Centrists. That will give Savisaar's party a modicum of support in places like Jõgevamaa, where Rahvaliit, for some odd reason, continues to win.

At the same time, the Centrists still don't seem to get the point that they may have won the most votes, but that doesn't mean they have the authority of a national salvation committee. It's hard to pick the most embarrassing moment so far, and it's only been a few days. Was it the call for early elections or Centre's clumsy overtures to form a coalition with IRL (which were immediately rebuffed)? Don't worry; there'll be more of them. And as they pile up, the people's memories will stack the decks in favor of the sweet boom years, paving the way for the eventual return of right-wing rule.

And what of the right-wing parties? It wasn't a total loss for them. In Tartu, Estonia's second biggest city, Reform solidly held onto its position as the leading party. It also won the most votes in Võru, Viljandi, Kuressaare, Haapsalu, and other towns. IRL, too, did not fare poorly. And, they should take any loss to Savisaar as a temporary set back as Savisaar's base includes two large divisions of people that continue to decline in numbers, pensioners and Estonian Russians.

The current crop of pensioners are people who spent most of their adult lives in service to the ESSR. But the next group of pensioners, those who came of age during the Singing Revolution, is unlikely to shift their allegiance to the roheline koletis. As for the myth of the Russian "fifth column," as of Jan. 1, 2009, but 36 percent of Tallinners identify themselves as ethnic Russians. Savisaar can continue to pander to them (I saw one advertisement strongly hinting at the relaxing of naturalization requirements), but it's not a recipe for a long-lasting majority.

The decline of the base is Savisaar's weak point. His political campaigns create the illusion of a state beset by anarchy where huge masses of have-nots join hands and overcome the starry-eyed Friedmanites that assuage everyone that, if we just follow the holy scripture of Saint Milton, everything will turn out alright. But, unfortunately for Savisaar, the masses aren't that huge, and he manages to capture their votes because they exist in places where rival parties dare not tread.

If Reform, IRL, SDE or even the Greens seriously put some efforts into attracting candidates that could compete in Centre Party strongholds, then they wouldn't get their asses so severely kicked in municipal elections.

So here are some suggestions for next time. These are very simple thoughts, forgive me. Ahem.

Reform's keyword is "reform." Once they get new leadership, they might be able to sell "reform," as most aspects of Estonian life require reforms. It's such a simple point, they themselves might have missed it. They can stick to their liberal principles, too, but also think of ways to attract voters who aren't wowed by references to economic theory. It's not unthinkable.

IRL? You'd think their keyword would be Isamaa -- "fatherland" -- but I would say their keyword should be "integrity." That's why people vote for Mart Laar -- because they believe he won't ever sell out the national interest. They should be the party of good governance. They should call other parties on every sleazy real estate deal, every sell out of Estonia. There are people who vote for Centre who know quite well how corrupt their politicians are. They just need to be called on it.

SDE? Their key word is "solidarity." If they stopped dressing up in bogus red and actually went door to door, they might be able to get people to believe in their values. They should spend less time at Tallinn wine and cheese events and more time in Estonia's shantytowns. Get a bus and go on a listening tour of Võrumaa or Ida Virumaa. I'm sure the people there will have a lot to share.

This will all take time. But I do believe a day will come when the green monster will lose big in districts it once held captive. And they'll deserve it.

Itching for Eestimaa,
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