Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 18
26 January 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
Elections for the Millennium

Mel Huang

The start of the new year plunged Estonia into campaign frenzy as political forces from the right and left began their final charge towards the Riigikogu elections on 7 March 1999. With President Lennart Meri's announcement of the election date late last year, newspapers have been dominated by stories of campaign strategies, political alliances, ranking of the party lists and other election matters. This coming election is vital, as the lifetime of the 9th Riigikogu lasts until the spring of 2003. This four-year period will be dominated by the final thrust to join the European Union, the election of a new president (with term limits, President Meri will not be able to run again), the transition towards NATO membership and the passing of the millennium. Many parties are fighting this election with extra vigour, sensing the political rewards at the end of the four-year tunnel.

The latter half of 1998, with the minority government of Prime Minister Mart Siimann growing more unstable by the week, the parties began their campaign anticipating an earlier-than-expected general election. Though the government has not collapsed and the poll was called at the expected date, the early campaigning has already affected poll results. Many parties were also openly talking about entering joint electoral lists, a strategy dampened by the passage of the law against joint electoral lists on 17 November 1998. The law did not make a large impact, as it did not restrict parties running on a single list under one party's name.

Similar but different

There seems to be little difference in the direction of Estonia's foreign policy throughout the political spectrum. Among all major parties, there is universal support for European Union and NATO membership. Despite the population being lukewarm and uninformed about the European Union, there is little Euroscepticism among the politicians. The Eurosceptic wings in some political groupings are a quiet and small minority. NATO integration is nearly universally supported (only some of the Russian parties oppose), the discussion primarily being the size of the defence budget.

On domestic policies there are certainly different opinions on issues ranging from economic to social issues. For a good example, the centre-left Centre Party (Keskerakond) of former Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar has proposed altering the tax system by introducing a progressive income tax over the current flat tax. On the other hand, the centre-right four-party grouping known as the United Opposition - the Christian democratic Pro Patria Union (Isamaaliit) of former Prime Minister Mart Laar, the liberal Reform Party (Reformierakond) of former Foreign Minister Siim Kallas, the populist centre-right People's Party (Rahvaerakond) of former Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and the centre-left Moderates (Moodukad) of former Prime Minister Andres Tarand - strongly advocates the retention of the current 26 per cent flat tax and pro-business policies.

Analysts are predicting that most likely six lists will win seats by clearing the five per cent hurdle in the proportional representation side of the vote. The aforementioned United Opposition, running with three lists (the People's Party has opted to run under the party list of the Moderates), are personally predicting a majority of the 101 seats up for grabs. On the other hand, the co-operation alliance between old Soviet-era partners Edgar Savisaar (former Prime Minister during the late Soviet era) of the Centre Party (Keskerakond) and Arnold Ruutel (former Chairman of the Supreme Soviet) of the Rural People's Party (Maarahva Erakond) are also predicting strong results for the two lists. Finally, the Coalition Party (Koonderakond) of current Prime Minister Siimann, which has brought under its list both the Pensioners' and Families' Union (Pensionaride- ja Perede Liit) and the Rural Union (Maaliit), are also expected to score seats.

A possible headache

The biggest toss-up concerning the minimum threshold has to be the united list of the United People's Party (Uhendatud Rahvapartei), the Social Democratic Labour Party (Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Toopartei, the former Communist Party), and several other ethnic-based groups. As the group was unable to bring the large Russian Party in Estonia (Vene Erakond Eestis) into the fold, there is fear that the votes will be divided leaving both shorn of the five per cent minimum hurdle for representation. In the current Riigikogu there are six representatives in the Russian faction (combining the United People's Party and Russian Party in Estonia); their absence could bring about unwanted headaches in the form of accusatory rhetoric and protest. Though most of the larger parties have ethnic non-Estonians in their lists, many view the Russian faction as the active defenders of issues concerning the large Russophone communities.

Perhaps the biggest worry would actually be the rhetoric from Russia if that turns out to be the case. As many non-ethnic Estonian voters have already shifted their political alliance to one of the traditional parties, the influence of these Russian parties has also diminished. This could be seen from statistics, as the support levels for all the Russian parties rarely exceed six per cent and the percentage of non-ethnic Estonian citizens in Estonia is several times that number. As Moscow's rhetoric towards 'discrimination in the Baltics' is often for domestic consumption and not a genuine concern for their ethnic kin outside their borders, the absence of the Russian parties in the next Riigikogu could prove to be the fuel necessary for Russia to rehash the same rhetoric dispelled by every international human rights organisation. Using this charge as a tool, Russia would likely again postpone the conclusion of a formal and final border agreement with Estonia - something that has been essentially agreed to concerning logistics, but held up pending 'final' approval from Moscow.

Overall the elections, to many analysts, are too close to call. Most are predicting either the United Opposition or the Savisaar-Ruutel groups to win the most seats, but likely shorn of a majority.

With another six weeks to go, the parties will likely be more vocal on the essential issues that would determine who will bring Estonia into the next millennium. As President Meri said in his New Year's address to the nation, "Do not elect an air bubble. Ask yourselves how you would like to see Estonia in four, ten, or fifty years' time ... and then elect the man or woman who would honestly and unselfishly represent our common interests on Toompea (the Riigikogu) in a statesmanlike manner."

Mel Huang, 26 January 1999


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