Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000

Amber Coast A M B E R    C O A S T:
Does Estonia Have a Left?

Mel Huang

Estonia's political map is a strange creature. It seems no one wants to be firmly on the left wing. Established left-wing parties move further and further to the centre, while those remaining in the left wing shudder at being labelled "left." The press is dominated by centre-right views, as the left-wing press is downgraded into tabloid style by the powers that be. So, does Estonia have a viable left wing or not?

By default, the answer has to be yes. However, looking at election results, the picture painted is that of a rather weak left-wing, compared to the right. Examining the shrinking electorate and continuously decreasing turnout, it is very likely that a portion of the voters are being alienated for their political views, which would be considered very mainstream in most European countries. Why is this the case in Estonia and not in other countries in the region?

The odd coalition

Mõõdukad leader Andres Tarand
Mõõdukad leader
Andres Tarand
Rarely in Europe, or anywhere else in the world, would one see a ruling coalition that is not meant to be a "rainbow coalition" containing the three major political forces: Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Liberals. However, in Estonia such a phenomenon is alive and relatively well, as the government of Mart Laar just celebrated its one-year anniversary. Though the three political directions are highly contradictory in nature, the three coalition partners - the conservative Pro Patria Union (Isamaaliit), the liberal Reform Party (Reformierakond) and the centrist People's Party Mõõdukad (Rahvaerakond Mõõdukad) - function well together.

Nevertheless, they have not managed to invent a magical formula of the three political philosophies, far from it. Before Tony Blair starts worrying about a William Hague Home Office or a Charles Kennedy Exchequer, the formula used in Estonia is not really representative of the three varying political ideas - but merely their tools, that is, the parties themseleves. In reality, the overall programme of the coalition is more of a compromise, heavily tilted in one direction. Even in disputes of an obvious nature, one side seems to be winning many of the intra-coalition tiffs.

Many political observers see the elimination of the corporate income tax in 2000 as a symbol of this intra-coalition tilted balance. Eliminating such taxes for reinvestment was a cornerstone of the liberal platform, that is of the Reform Party platform. On the other hand, the nominally social democratic Mõõdukad complained about less funds being available for social spending through such a move but lost their fight against their laissez faire partners. From this and other examples it is clear that the liberal agenda is receiving more attention than that of the Social Democrats.

Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves
Foreign Minister
Toomas Hendrik Ilves
This was clear from the beginning, since Mõõdukad came out of a most unlikely merger. The centre-left party, a member of Socialist International, merged with the People's Party (Rahvaerakond) nominally before the March 1999 parliamentary elections and legally just this month. The People's Party itself was the result of a merger of a non-influential agrarian party, led by Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and the Right-Wingers (Parempoolsed), a breakaway faction from the already right-wing Pro Patria Union. The creation of the current party People's Party Mõõdukad thus entailed an unlikely transformation of a right-wing unit into a social democratic party. Some have called the merged unit a political convenience, a political vehicle for two oft-mentioned presidential candidates: party leader Andres Tarand and the aforementioned Ilves (see Amber Coast, "Right-wing Socialists", 7 June 1999, for an earlier poke at this exotic party mix).

Marju Lauristin
Prominent Mõõdukad MP
Marju Lauristin
Looking back to the formation of the government, it was clear where this party stood with respect to the others. Its two most prominent members - Tarand and former Minister and well-respected sociologist Marju Lauristin - were given parliamentary posts instead of government jobs. Both are heads of committees and factions, which in modern day Estonia have little power compared to cabinet ministers and act mostly as mouthpieces. The excuse used for sidelining Tarand was that he needed to warm up for the 2001 presidential election, but there was none made for the committed left-winger Lauristin. Each of the other parties placed their most prominent members in the cabinet. Thus with a good part of the party (and cabinet) less than devoted to social democracy, it is no wonder the united liberals continue to win intra-coalition battles.

However, the current battles over VAT (value-added tax) on heating, as well as longer-term issues such as the second phase of pension reform, could spark a long-awaited challenge. Some political commentators suggest that this could break the coalition, though this seems unlikely. All three parties have sufficient interest to stay in power together, especially with the looming presidential election next year. However, the specific repositioning of the focal point among these three parties will be best indicated by which particular side caves in on this issue. A collapse of the government is unthinkable for the coalition, as it could involve the rise of the much-disliked head of the opposition, Edgar Savisaar.

The Savisaar factor

Edgar Savisaar is a passionately liked or a vehemently hated individual and polarises the Estonian public more than anyone. As leader of the Centre Party (Keskerakond), Savisaar has led his party simultaneously to two consecutive electoral victories and defeats, winning the most seats in the Riigikogu and the Tallinn City Council but being locked out of both. Many parties announced before the elections that they would not enter into any coalition with the Centre Party, indicating the extent of passionate feelings conjured up by the former transition-era premier. Many remember when Savisaar was last in government as interior minister, when he was implicated in a massive scandal that led to his resignation. When tapes of secret recorded conversations between powerful politicians were unearthed, the so-called "Estonian Watergate" dominated the press. Savisaar has been shut out of power since.

However, Savisaar does bring in a lot of votes for his party, and his party is consistently the largest vote-winner in elections - albeit not a large enough one to rule each time. There appears to be a core 20 to 25 per cent of the electorate that supports Savisaar, coming from the usual centre-left electoral base: social activists, middle and lower-middle class, labour, the disenfranchised and others. In other words, simply the standard constituency for a normal social democratic party. However, Savisaar also counts on the support of some minority groups, law enforcement officials and others. The Centre Party usually votes alongside the largely rural Estonian People's Union (Eestimaa Rahvaliit), the Coalition Party (Koonderakond) of the now ineffectual nomenklatura, and the Russophone United Peoples Party (Ăśhendatud Rahvapartei). It would seem that, with a lack of a credible social democratic force in Estonia, the Centre Party would fill the void readily.

Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar
Centre Party leader
Edgar Savisaar
Not so, as the strength of the party - Edgar Savisaar himself - is also its Achilles Heel. Savisaar's association with the party has alienated a portion of the party's possible electoral base. Many people in Estonia would feel more than comfortable voting for the Centre Party based on its platform but do not vote for it due to concerns over Savisaar. With turnout at the last two elections at 57.4 per cent (March 1999, general) and 49.4 per cent (October 1999, local), it seems a large number of voters are disenchanted. Although no study has been done linking the figure of Savisaar and voter apathy, anecdotal evidence suggests some connection. Mõõdukad saw a massive drop in voters during the local elections, for example, in Tallinn it received 8.33 per cent, or 4 seats, compared to 15.21 per cent and 17 seats in the general elections. Yet, the Centre Party did not see its support change by much (23.7 per cent, or 21 seats, compared to 23.41 per cent and 28 seats in the general elections). Of course, there are other major factors involved, such as the difference in elections and voters, that prevent this from being labelled as a solid link, but it does suggest that Savisaar is not picking up the lost Mõõdukad votes.

Often Savisaar does not help his own cause. A great example of this came during the campaign season in 1999. Savisaar, criticised often as a "big brother" figure (especially after the taping scandal), added to this hysteria with the party's campaign ads during the last parliamentary election. All over Estonia there appeared billboards showing only Savisaar's eyes behind his glasses, with the slogan, "The Centre Party knows the solutions." Many were shocked by the brazen ads, which fuelled further passions against the ever-intrusive Savisaar (see Amber Coast, "The Final Stretch, 22 February 1999, for more about this strange ad campaign). Though it was a comic relief when a cable television company replaced the ads on election day with two exposed breasts in the same style, sadly, the involvement of several prominent members of the party in alcohol-related scandals in the summer of 1999 did not help the party's image (see Amber Coast, "Hitting the Bottle, and the Road", 2 August 1999, for a sobering account).

Distrust even exists amongst the politicians who support Savisaar, as evidenced by the presidential election of 1996. In the mass electoral college, the first round gave Savisaar's candidate, MP Siiri Oviir, just 25 votes - embarrassingly less than the unknown Tartu University professor Enn Tõugu, who received 47 (out of 372 members). Many saw Oviir as a stooge for Savisaar, thus even the prospects of electing a female president did not suppress the anxiety over a Savisaar-controlled presidency.

As long as Savisaar remains in the party's leadership, it appears this lost electorate will stay away from the party. Instead of taking full advantage of the fleeing Mõõdukad voters, the Centre Party is, instead, building its support around Savisaar. However, the amount of strength and support lost if Savisaar goes compared to the possible gains is not certain. In the end, regardless of interpretation, the centre-left is left with a massive void.

The media

Centre-right daily Postimees The situation is also exacerbated by the press. The two largest dailies in Estonia - Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht - are both clearly on the centre-right. Alongside business daily Äripäev, the three have been more than supportive of the coalition on their editorial pages. Though not universal or constant, the general feeling is that the two papers share similar political views and criticise the government on problems in the compromise coalition agreement and its implementation.

Until recently, there was a small third daily that tried to challenge the pair: Sõnumileht. Though never coming close to the circulation of the two majors, Sõnumileht offered the only left-leaning editorial board among mass-circulated dailies. However, as Estonia's "independent" media is owned by two major interest groups - Sweden's Bonnier (which owns the group that publishes Eesti Päevaleht) and Norway's Schibsted (which controls the publisher of Postimees) - Sõnumileht fell victim to the gigantic Nordic media business and its fierce competition. Owned by Schibsted, Sõnumileht was soon made into a tabloid to compete against Õhtuleht - a yellow-paper tabloid with wide readership published by the Bonnier side. In fact, via its business paper Dagens Industi, Bonnier also controls Äripäev.

Centre-right daily Eesti Päevaleht Today, there is no widely circulated left-leaning paper per se in Estonia. The rural Maaleht covers topics of concern to rural readers, which are not necessarily centre-left. The Centre Party publishes its own newspaper, but that has nowhere near the circulation of the major dailies and is tainted by its single-party view. Eesti Ekspress, a popular weekly, is more independent in its political position but often falls into triviality with tabloid-like stories and some muckraking adventures.

A viable left wing?

Estonia has a left wing, but there is little unity and strength among it. The two major parties that fit the centre-left bill fail to deliver the goods. Mõõdukad has been sidelined in the ruling coalition, and many criticise the party of backing away from its social democratic roots. It has not even adopted a Tony Blair-like "third way." The Centre Party, especially its Savisaar-oriented leadership, remains problematic and for the time being, is far from the possibility of attaining large number of left-leaning voters.

More exposure could be shifted to the left wing if current right-wing parties begin to falter. Though the conservative Pro Patria Union has a large contingent of loyal voters and is gaining popularity among the young and the new citizens of ethnic Russian origin, the liberal Reform Party is not in such good shape. With
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party leader Finance Minister Siim Kallas involved in a protracted corruption case and the drive toward EU integration forcing the government to abandon many of the liberal, laissez faire policies of the past years (for example, Estonia's first import tariffs, imposed due to EU pressure, come into effect this year for third-party countries), the party may be losing its position, and reason. At the same time, the Pro Patria Union is stealing support from Reform with its own liberal wing, symbolised by former banker Jüri Mõis (see Amber Coast, "Dissing His Own Product", 30 January 2000, for more on the enigmatic Tallinn mayor). Will this give Mõõdukad impetus to assert its social democratic roots, or will the party collapse following the 2001 presidential elections?

There is plenty of time for the situation to change before the next set of elections, with local elections due in 2002 and Riigikogu elections in 2003. There is also plenty of time for a centre-left media to expand, with a natural market niche waiting for entrepreneurial media tycoons to give it a red banner similar to ones available throughout Europe.

Mel Huang, 30 March 2000

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast series of articles

Related Links:

Centre Party (Keskerakond) [in Estonian only]

People's Party Mõõdukad (Rahvaerakond Mõõdukad) [in Estonian only]

Reform Party (Reformierakond) [in Estonian only]

Pro Patria Union (Isamaaliit) [in Estonian only]

Eesti Päevaleht





Eesti Ekspress





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