Berk Vaher: The Era of Political Parties Is Waning (1)
The local elections are over and the results are known. Commentators are once again talking above all about how successful (or not) parties were, with an occasional nod of acknowledgement toward citizen election coalitions. But do parties have any hope of remaining the primary political organisational format on the local level?
Above all, Tallinn's election results seem to support the view that parties are faring well, as there election coalitions failed to get a seat on city council. But in several other larger cities the case is different - once again an election coalition received the most votes in Pärnu, while in Tartu two coalitions got in and coalitions performed well elsewhere in Estonia as well.
Looking more closely at parties' lists, we see crises of leadership and an internal shortage of strong young leaders. I sense this especially keenly in my home town of Tartu. For example, the campaign run by IRL, which was already internally split, was disrupted by confusing PR and inability to agree in public on one mayoral candidate. The self-starter Rein Kilk got a large number of votes - counterintuitively so - but might have cost his party an even better result if not a victory. Also attesting to Tartu's IRL leadership crisis were the decoy ducks - national politicians placed high up on their list - many of whom did not bring in many votes.
Nor do the Social Democrats and Center Party have a powerful local leader - both needed a good amount of "doping" from Tallinn to get the votes they needed. But the result was not good enough in the case of either party. And the fact that the incumbent mayor of Tartu - of the Reform Party - did get the best individual vote total speaks to the party's strictly hierarchical structure and their own base, but it does not invalidate the criticism voiced in the media and within the party about the lack of political grasp and vision, which have led the city into stagnation.
But is the situation with Tallinn's parties any better? IRL's leading figure in these elections was "imported" to the top, and lacks municipal political experience. The Reform Party and the Social Democrats had MPs as mayoral candidates who in the eyes of city residents did not merit that position. And what would the Center Party be without Savisaar? He will not last forever and there doesn't seem to be any mayoral material anywhere to replace him.
The young and capable people are heading, if they haven't already, to election coalitions. Politically, the emergence (and occasionally success) of these organizations is also the result of the impotence of and work left undone by parties. The result is that the smart people go elsewhere, or refuse to join parties and they apply their organizational capabilities in communities that are not yet stagnant or too remote from ordinary people; which are not dependent on big financiers, or influenced by power brokering on the national level. And attesting to the organizational capability is the fact that election coalitions achieved a position on city council with a much smaller budget and campaign than parties had.
Parties spent - or wasted - money to increase their vote totals with candidates not even interested in improving local life; and especially outside Tallinn, voters mostly realized that they were being hoodwinked.
But many others fell for it, and now they have to read in the paper that their candidate doesn't intend to serve on municipal council. Presumably the crisis of leadership and successorship will deepen even further thanks to this deceitfulness. The main things keeping parties from dying out is the Election Act, according to which election coalitions cannot run for Parliament. This keeps even the alienated people in party lists - and parties themselves have shown great resistance to amending the act.
Even the Election Act, as centered on a party-corporate culture as it is, does not automatically lead to organizational renewal of parties. But the good results posted by election coalitions can convince the uncertain that the form is superior and thus the next local elections will feature even larger and stronger election coalitions. And at some point even Tallinn will change.
Berk Vaher is a Tartu-based writer and critic known for genre-bending essays on semiotics and political philosophy. This piece was translated from uudised.err.ee.