Analysis: What Went Wrong on Election Night? (3)

Image: Poliitika & Pullisitt
10/22/2013 8:16 AM
Category: Features

ERR News editors reflected on the campaign, the vote and the aftermath.

Euphoria, Then Letdown

ERR News's headquarters on election night was based at an officially non-partisan gathering of trained political scientists. But among young and educated people in Tallinn, these days it's hard to escape a general weariness with a situation where one party - one seen even by its supporters as having a certain largesse with public money - has held a majority on city council for the better part of a decade.

Although the release of e-voting results at 20:00 produced a general uplift and maybe an excusable sense of moral superiority ("people who have devices vote the right way!"), the rest of the evening was spent watching the IRL/Reform totals being diluted by tens of thousands of Center Party votes. It was like watching an ice cube melt.

Especially after 23:00, the pundits in the sitting area behind ERR's long table sporadically erupted in loud groans. Around midnight, the party quickly fizzled out. The predominant tone in the morning's social media was "four more years."

So what happened? More or less of a repeat of the 2009 elections, with some repositioning among the non-Center Party parties. The Reform Party received a major blow, the Social Democrats' summertime vows to bring change all but became a distant memory, and while IRL certainly gained ground, its big talk amounted to not so much. Indeed, it couldn't amount to much, when its stated goal was nothing short of unseating the mayor and it fell short.

Denial: Why They Failed

Indignant politicians had plenty of excuses: the voter turnout wasn't as high as last time around; the important policy issues did not get enough attention; and the most ridiculous one of them all, at least from a democratic point of view, that the voters voted for the wrong candidates.

At the end of the day, Tallinn's big opposition parties, except for the Social Democrats, seemed to neglect the reason Center is still in power - its voters. Demographically speaking, it is a well known fact that a large share of their support base consists of local Russians and older people. Why didn't they address this issue, instead of repeating history? Why didn't they try, or try harder, to win these voters over?

For example, the Reform Party simply decided not to contest the northeast, the region that is majority Russian-speaking. In a way, though, they also abandoned Tallinn, underspending on their campaign.

Many voters, even ones who might be desperate for an alternative, kept the Center Party on as the status quo. This is especially the case in Ida-Viru County in the abovementioned northeast, where the population is draining, unemployment is noticeably higher than in the capital, salaries are lower and corruption is rampant.

'Business as Usual' - Does Tallinn 'Work'?

It's business as usual in Tallinn, as Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar said in his victory speech last night. A contrarian view is that it's not all bad. Yes, many people see Tallinn as having a soft, rotten side. If this were Italy, imagine a potential Milan - an efficient, cosmopolitan, clockwork city - except with a southern overlay of sleaze.

When Eerik-Niiles Kross talks about getting Tallinn to develop in the same rhythm as the rest of Estonia, he overlooks the fact that Tallinn is where the bright lights are. Much of the rest of Estonia tends to be fairly provincial, struggling to maintain the public services that it has. (We can only imagine the situation in the other Baltics if Edward Lucas says that Estonian countryside is better.) On the other hand, Tallinn is a fully Western European city, and it does "work" - for now.  

And interestingly, despite being ruled by Reform and IRL for a very long time and having a top-notch university, can it really be said that Tartu is visibly better - it is dotted by overdevelopment down by the river and questionable architecture. But of course, the streets are somewhat better (winter being the great leveler, though), there are fewer questions about sustainability and debt. And in Tartu there's no egomaniac leader with a taxpayer-funded media empire and separate municipal institutions.  

Reform Party Calls the Kettle Black

What will we remember about these elections? There was a whole lot of hustle and bustle. The money spent by Center (and other parties ) rankles. Despite the "back to work" pledge, the taste that will linger from this election is the circus - a freak show mixed with peep show. Drones, bare breasts (or lack thereof), a hideous robotic giant and Kross's intimidating mugshot ads.

Even on Monday morning, IRL continued to talk things up when Kross declared, after Tallinn's opposition was yet again brought to its knees, that there will now be a completely new political culture in Tallinn City Council.

However, a general criticism from both commentators and politicians themselves, more so from the Tallinn opposition, was that there was little substantive debate during the elections. Instead, it was underscored by attack ads and entertainment.

For example, Andrus Ansip and other Reformists said they had a lower-than-hoped turnout because the media and voters were more interested in fireworks than in the issues. Indeed, the Reform Party's Valdo Randpere was dubbed one of the strongest debaters at one  ERR event, defeating both Savisaar and Kross.

But, despite Ansip's assertions, neither his party nor other parties seemed to put too much energy into conveying their policy plans, at least on a national level. And of course, the Reform Party is itself guilty of cheap popularity stunts - does 'sex sells' ring a bell?

Demokraatia

To continue to bash on Ansip for a moment, perhaps the most petty and surprising reflection on the election results came from the prime minister last night. Ansip, who otherwise tends to maintain a cool and reasonable public profile, implied in comments that voters who had preferred citizen initiatives over parties had made a mistake by robbing the opposition and rewarding Center.

But that should be for the voters to decide, as democracy would have it. Instead of blaming the voters, Ansip should examine why his party didn't succeed in winning over these voters. Remarkably, a third of Estonians voted for citizen election coalitions, many because they felt parties weren't doing enough, and Ansip risks further alienating those people.

Will the parties learn anything from what happened yesterday? Given our current mood of pessimism, and the fact that they didn't change their attitudes after the 2009 election, it's easy to come to the quick conclusion that they will not. But we won't really know the answer for four more years. Four painful, frustrating years.



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