Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 18
25 October 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
A Deflating Election Experience
Estonia went to the polls for the last time this century
Mel Huang

Estonia held its final elections of the millennium for all local councils on 17 October in quite an unspectacular fashion. As both politicians and voters remained burnt out from the hard-fought general elections in March earlier this year, the local elections seemed a bit of an anticlimax.

Tallinn became the battleground part deux for the parties, who were trying to prove their worth half a year after the general elections. Instead of real issues, the elections - especially in Tallinn - were side-tracked by the national situation, as well as by the question of an open presidency in 2001, when current President Lennart Meri will be barred from re-election by term limits. So how did the voters react to all this?

Low turnout

On a cold and blustery election day, the turnout fell to 49.4 per cent - below the psychologically reassuring 50 per cent barrier - for the first time since the restoration of independence. Most analysts had been worried ever since the March general elections registered an already low 57.4 per cent, and since local elections tend to bring out even less voters. For example, only 52.1 per cent of eligible voters came out for the last local elections, held in 1996. Three days of early voting, held on 11 to 13 October, brought out 9.3 per cent of voters - which gave pollsters some initial optimism. However, that optimism was quickly shattered.

The differences in turnout were noticeable along various dividing lines, such as geography and citizenship status. Among the 1,058,818 people eligible to vote, 194,525 were non-citizens. Estonia allows its non-citizen permanent residents who have resided in a region over a specific time period to vote just like any citizen in local elections. However, among eligible citizens, only 50.9 per cent, or 435,878 citizens, voted. This number was even lower on the non-citizens end, with only 84,379, or 43 per cent, turning out to vote.

Regionally, the turnout varied as well. The highest turnout came in rural regions, such as the central Jogeva county and south-eastern Polva county, though still under 55 per cent for both. Surprisingly, the lowest turnout came from Tartu, where only 38.4 per cent of residents bothered to vote. Around the various districts of Tallinn, the combined turnout was 48.4 per cent.

No surprises

The results of the elections countrywide did not surprise many people. The centre-left national opposition Centre Party (Keskerakond) showed strong results in Tallinn and the industrial north-east. The Centre Party, led by former transition-era Prime Minister and current MP and Tallinn City Council Chairman Edgar Savisaar, took advantage of being in opposition and thus being able to harshly criticise the ruling coalition during a year of economic weakness. The party clearly dominated Tallinn, gaining 21 of 64 seats in the City Council. It also took decisive victories in north-eastern cities such as Narva (14 of 31 city council seats) and Kohtla-Jarve (21 of 41 seats), where the ruling coalition did not make much of an effort in wooing votes.

But if the Centre Party saw the elections as an opportunity for voters to express anger towards the three-party national ruling coalition, it was disappointed. The three ruling parties - Pro Patria Union (Isamaaliit), Reform Party (Reformierakond) and Moodukad (roughly translatable as "Moderates" but they shun that usage) - came out as strong as ever. In Tallinn, the three parties together gained 28 of 64 seats, while in Tartu they now have a runaway 35 seats out of 49 - with incumbent mayor Andrus Ansip leading his Reform Party to 20 of them. The three-party coalition clearly won the day in other cities, such as Haapsalu (16 of 21 seats).

The "other" Parliament

Tallinn was fought over like in a national campaign, as if it was a sub-chamber of the Riigikogu. The parties lined up all their top politicians, ranging from ex-prime ministers to current cabinet ministers, against each other in the eight electoral districts. A quirk in the Estonian electoral laws allows sitting ministers to run, but not take up seats - thus in a PR-focused election, they act only as agents to gain votes for their parties. Not surprisingly, several cabinet ministers brought their parties a fair amount of votes.

However, unless big deals are cut, the final results indicate a hung election. The Centre Party holds 21 seats and the three-party coalition holds 28, leaving 15 seats up for grabs. The two seats of the formerly ruling Coalition Party (Koonderakond) are likely to be swayed toward the Centre Party. Among the two Russian-dominated lists, People's Choice (Rahva Valik) fared better, with 9 seats. It is also more inclined to join forces with the leftist Centre Party. This would give the two parties 32 seats, exactly half of the 64-member council.

But then there is the other Russian grouping, People's Trust (Rahva Usaldus), with the final 4 seats. The two Russian lists fought an acrimonious battle in the Russian-language press for the last few months, and there is no clear indication of how they would reconcile even for majority control of Tallinn. The three-party centre-right coalition has been wooing People's Trust and its leader, charismatic MP Sergei Ivanov. However, bringing it into the coalition would be anathema for some members of the three parties, not so much on account of its platform and language policy, but on account of one elected candidate - Yevgeni Kogan. Kogan was a leader of the so-called Interfront movement a decade ago, a movement which fought against the restoration of Estonia's independence. To many in the three parties, some of whom are former dissidents and political prisoners, working with Kogan would be an affront to their own beliefs. Even if they manage to clear that difficult hurdle, the centre-right grouping would get 32 votes. A dead heat.

Basically, Tallinn will likely come down to Sergei Ivanov. His decision could leave a hung Tallinn city council if he goes with the centre-right group or remains uncommitted to both sides. But if he manages to reconcile with his foes in People's Choice, it could allow the centre-left to keep hold of Estonia's "other" Parliament.

Surprising defeats

However, not lost among the party battles were some interesting defeats of well-known politicians. The formerly ruling Coalition Party was trounced in these elections even worse than in the March general elections. Former Prime Minister Tiit Vahi and former Defence Minister Andrus Oovel did not come close to winning a seat, nor did former Riigikogu Speaker Ulo Nugis - in his "safe" constituency of Nomme in Tallinn. Even Centre Party bigwigs - such as deputy Tallinn mayor Eve Fink - failed to win a seat (though the party will likely manoeuvre for some seat or administration job if they retain control). Sadly, Vladimir Ivanov, reprimanded for showing up at a City Council meeting seriously drunk during the summer, won his seat easily (see Amber Coast from 2 August 1999 for the set of summer drink stories involving politicians).

However, the biggest national debacle has to be Moodukad. The party ran a large but controversial campaign with the slogan "Tarand Presidendiks - Vali Moodukad" (Tarand for President - Vote Moodukad). This, though getting out the Tarand name to the public, failed miserably as a campaign tactic in these local elections. Moodukad was trounced in Tallinn, gaining only 4 seats - including one won by Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The party's mayoral candidate, Hagi Shein, could not use his momentum to bring in more votes. Social Minister Eiki Nestor and Populations Minister Katrin Saks both failed to win seats in Tallinn.

But if Tallinn's results were bad, things were even more disastrous for Moodukad in Tartu. The party was shamed down to 1 seat, won by well-loved former political prisoner Enn Tarto. Surprisingly, popular former Social Minister and Tartu University Professor Marju Lauristin failed to win a seat, as did mayoral candidate and current Economics Minister Mihkel Parnoja. Clearly, these elections were a disaster for the party.

Even if Moodukad's intention was only to offer up the name of Andres Tarand for a future presidential election, this was a horrific way of doing it. If, a big if, that was the paty's point - to sacrifice these elections for a future possible campaign for Tarand - then it is contradictory to the concept of these elections. For, it would be a clear message that Moodukad does not care about local councils or the people, just about gaining that one big seat in Kadriorg. If that is the case, again a big if, then the party should really "cut the crap" - as it suggested in its slogan back during the March general elections: "Aitab Jamast - Vali Moodukad" (Cut the Crap - Vote Moodukad). A definite low point of the elections.

Wrap up, wipe out

In many respects, these elections were a disappointment for many people. The national debate overwhelmed the Tallinn campaign, and most other regional councils did not experience drastic changes in composition. Turnout dropped by a further few points.

Again, all the attention was on Tallinn. Groups representing Russian-speakers again became kingmakers, while the former city rulers among the Coalition Party collapsed into near oblivion. Surprisingly, the strong showing of Moodukad in the Riigikogu elections in March disappeared almost completely, with a disastrous 4 seats in Tallinn and a near wipe-out in a former stronghold, Tartu.

Again, what did the voters think? Has anything changed after these elections? Only time will tell; however, judging by the voting patterns, the last elections in Estonia before the next millennium proved to be a deflating experience - for voters and candidates alike. Too many people forgot the elections were for local residents and not for some far-off presidential race. One party especially forgot that and, in turn, probably alienated a whole segment of its voters.

Mel Huang, 20 October 1999



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