If the country sees itself as the shining beacon of an information society, then it’s only fitting that it be governed by the IT crowd, writes Andrei Tuch.
The news over the past year has given voters extremely valid reasons to find each major political party unpalatable. With municipal elections coming this fall, an active and aware citizen who genuinely wants to participate in Estonian democracy is now very likely to be dismayed at the choices on offer.
In previous years, an overall ideological orientation would have been enough to resolve the question. People would generally pinch their noses and reluctantly vote for the lesser of two mainstream evils. But not anymore, probably.
This would normally be the time when a new political party would arise and mop up all the dissatisfied voters. Estonia’s multiparty parliamentary system and tradition of uneasy coalitions certainly allows for this, and indeed the trick has been pulled a few times - think of an independent European Parliament candidate, or Greens or Res Publica, both of which squandered their political capital in a subsequent show of woeful incompetence.
When even the cause of Keeping The Other Guys Out is not enough to rally voters, a new political power cannot rise up on its own. More importantly, despite the blatant quagmire of Estonia’s political system in 2013, things just aren’t that bad.
The sort of noble and competent people who fit the bill have much better things to do with their lives and their motivation than to run for public office. Not because they would not be good at the job, but because they absolutely shudder at the prospect of campaigning. As the great social commentator Douglas Adams wrote, the sort of person who is capable of getting themselves elected as President of the Universe is the sort of person who should not be allowed anywhere near the job.
To look for a viable new political power, it is better to start at the other end: see who’s actually managed to affect genuine change in this society in recent years.
One such group, surprisingly, is the trade unions. Traditionally dismissed as ineffectual in a country renowned for its business-friendly policies, they have staged at least three major strikes - for the teachers, the doctors and the emergency service workers - that ended with a satisfactory share of their demands being met.
Indeed, the party that is commonly associated with the trade unions of Estonia has long been a siphon for disgusted voters from either mainstream camp. But its cause is not helped by the fact that no one affiliated with the trade unions is close to corridors of power anymore. The Social Democrats were booted out of the coalition some time ago, and more importantly, the party’s success as a vote sink has largely depended on the voters not actually believing that it is an earnest vehicle of classic European leftist ideology of the organized labor flavor. If they ever begin to look like genuinely credible socialists, they are done.
There is, however, another community, held together by ideology and common views on issues. This is most easily definable as the NGO Estonian Internet Community (Eesti Interneti Kogukond), along with various associated groups and individuals. Their opposite numbers elsewhere in Europe have achieved some genuine political success, with various Pirate Parties being represented in such bodies as the European Parliament and the Berlin city council - it’s worth pointing out that the latter covers nearly three Estonias worth of people. (There is actually a registered Pirate Party of Estonia, but you’re excused for never having heard of it.)
If the country sees itself as the shining beacon of an information society, then it’s only fitting that it be governed by the IT crowd. Crucially, this particular organization has managed to achieve some remarkable political successes in its short time in existence.
The anti-ACTA protests of 2012 were a beautiful, genuinely inspirational expression of public political will - direct democracy in action, in an archetypally apathetic nation, in February! Though it’s unfortunate that most of the folks on the streets had not actually read the text of the treaty and the lawyers speaking on behalf of EIK gave a very suspicious and biased interpretation of it, the significance is in the fact that the community is capable of organizing itself and making itself heard - and the people who are passionate about these issues are the same ones who will be the backbone of the country over the next fifty years.
Just recently, representatives from EIK were called into a government crisis management session, to help draft a response to mafia-style threats from a lawyer representing the American software makers’ association, pointing out just how unfortunate it would be if Estonia would be placed on a list of countries where Western companies are discouraged from investing, and how equally unfortunate it is that the country’s existing and planned laws do not consider individual consumer-level file-sharing a serious crime. (The government’s carefully considered final response amounted to a shrug and a “So what?”; the list has been published and we’re not on it.) This shows that EIK is also capable of working productively with the establishment and the civil service.
Every true and great achievement in Estonia’s development over the last twenty years has come not from adherence to a particular branch of classical political ideology, but from adherence to common sense. No one political party gets to point to the country’s shared accomplishment and say “Mission accomplished!” or “Be proud of this on our behalf!” If Estonian politics are in a dead end, then what we need is not just new blood in mainstream parties, but a whole new political task force, made up of engineers trained to maximize efficiency and find optimal solutions regardless of ideology. Where art thou, technocrats?
Andrei Tuch will definitely be voting in the next elections, even if he has to get an e-prescription for anti-nausea pills.