Bigger Isn't Always Better

Urmo Kübar (Postimees/Scanpix)
2/6/2014 9:09 AM
Category: Opinion

Urmo Kübar, former head of the Estonian Network of Nonprofit Organizations and a current specialist with the organization, says that even after recent changes, prospective political parties are required to come up with an unreasonably high number of members.

On January 22, Parliament passed amendments to the Political Party Act. Exactly a year after the website of the People’s Assembly, a citizen's parliament, collected ideas intended to make politics in Estonia more open and better, it can be said that the first of these suggestions have become law.

Increased controls on party financing, lower security deposits for candidates and simpler rules for founding parties will all pave the way to livelier political competition. However, the steps on almost all the key issues fell significantly short of what the  People’s Assembly recommended. 

The parliamentary parties gave themselves relatively comfortable leeway, with entry into force scheduled for April. That means that the new parties founded according to these new rules won’t be able to run in the European Parliamentary elections. And the new procedures for funding political parties from the state budget will be implemented only once the next Parliament is in office, so the changes are not much help to small parties preparing for 2015 elections. 

Rait Maruste, the head of the Parliament’s Constitutional Committee, who drafted the bill, tends to answer such criticism by saying that the Parliament is not the executive body of the People’s Assembly. No one has actually claimed it is. However, it is perfectly reasonable to expect an explanation for preferring these choices and rejecting others. 

Take the issue of the minimum number of members required for founding a political party, halved to 500. The day of discussions of the People’s Assembly, a microcosm of Estonia in terms of sex, age and residence, suggested bringing it down to 200.

The parliamentary parties referred to advocates of the 200-member threshold as incompetent lazy-bones. Listen, the difficulty of obtaining 500 or 1,000 signatures is not the issue here! In the summer, the newspaper Eesti Päevaleht conducted an experiment and in an hour and a half, they had collected 50 signatures that were given in agreement to join a party made up by the editorial team of the newspaper - most of them were unaware of what they were signing. 

Therefore, the issue is something else. Let’s leave Estonian parties for a moment and look across the ocean, at the company Gore & Associates, maker of Gore-Tex, which can probably be found in many Estonian homes. 

For 30 years in a row, the company has made it onto the top 100 best workplaces in the US rankings, reaching the 22th spot this year. The company, which incidentally has no bosses and subordinates, only “employees”, has constructed its buildings so that they would fit around 150 jobs at a time. They have discovered that in a larger team, the relations become formal, which is not good for creative and dedicated work. Once the car park for 150 cars is full and people start parking on the lawn, the company knows that it’s time to build new spaces and create a new team. 

Gore reached this number intuitively, like many tribes, religious movements or the military, which has found for centuries that in a group of 100 to 200 people, the natural ties essential for the functioning of a community begin to fade. In the 1990s, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found an explanation with his research of the human brain - namely, 150 is the amount of relationships that allow us to really know, not just be acquainted with people. To know their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, preferences and needs - all this is a prerequisite for trust. The figure has become known as Dunbar’s number after the man who discovered it. 

I am not saying that Dunbar’s number is the ideal size for a political party. Even Gore mentioned earlier has 6,500 people on its staff in various units. Still, there has been excessive emphasis on size. Just look at the way the political parties are jumping to report that their membership has passed another thousand mark! Should one of them announce: “This year was a great success: we reduced our budget, our membership and our staff”, it would be like the exercise “What is wrong with this picture?” from a school workbook. 

Actually, nothing is necessarily wrong. Even the parties that are great in the Estonian scale, do not have thousands of members who are active, make substantial contributions, and shape policies, the number is more likely to be 100-200. Several times less than the so-called dead souls who do not pay membership fees, never participate in anything and of whom many have probably forgotten they belong to a political party. 

It is obvious that a party will achieve nothing in the elections with 200, 500 or 1,000 supporters. It needs significantly greater support in order to succeed. Forcing a nascent party to come up with a greater number of members directs it down the same path that the established parties have taken:  recruiting a passive mass. 

It should be stated that I am not among those who think that a new political party or two is just what Estonian politics needs. When the environment remains the same, the newcomer is likely to plagued by the troubles of established forces instead of bringing on a change. I suppose I would be more hopeful if we had at least one example from this century to prove the opposite. 

But perhaps the problem has been that these newcomers have spent too much energy on becoming sizeable instead of becoming great?

This piece was originally published on It was translated from the Estonian with minor editing. 

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