Tõnis Saarts: A crisis to define a decade

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: ERR

The effects of the current crisis will stay with us for a decade, reshaping the lines of force on the political landscape and attitudes in society both in Estonia and the world, political scientist Tõnis Saarts says on Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Just like the financial crisis of 2008 and the Bronze Night that preceded it shaped the face and lines of force of Estonian politics for almost the entire decade after, so will the coronavirus crisis lay down the prevalent political mentality for the following decade, complete with winners and losers on the political landscape.

There are largely two choices – 2020 will either become the triumph of conservatives promoting national reticence or the euphoria of surviving the crisis will swing the pendulum back to favor forces looking to return to openness.

In the first case, the coming decade would be shaped by the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) and the now more conservative Center Party after building up a healthy stockpile of credit from the people by successfully solving the current crisis. In the second, we would see the forceful return of the Reform Party at the 2023 elections at the latest.

The dream of right-wing populists

As things stand, the government's and especially EKRE's project for closeness and national conservatism stands to pick up so much momentum as to be very difficult for liberals to thwart in the future.

Journalist Vilja Kiisler recently described the situation as a dream for right-wing populists on the "Olukorrast riigis" radio show:

Borders will be closed, free movement will be restricted, with immigration pressure nearing zero; the European Union has collectively demonstrated its inability (so as not to say uselessness) to address such challenges; national sovereignty rears its head again; the government, wielding their mandate from the people, takes special measures with the people's silent approval and will likely be forgiven for slight authoritarian exaggeration; true national solidarity surfaces, where the people and the government become a single body of nation…

What we are seeing, then, is the unexpected realization of the social model proposed by EKRE the core message of which is that Estonia needs to be protected from the harmful effects of the globalizing world at all costs and where proud isolation is the right path…

Why should EKRE, Isamaa and the Center Party, that will likely have become far more conservative by the time this crisis is over, turn back in full all recent government decisions and return to the previously liberal social order promoting global openness?

What is more, the government seems much better prepared to combat the recession to follow the outbreak of the coronavirus than past governments of the Reform Party were in terms of meeting the financial crisis of 2008-2011.

Governments have access to loan markets, meaning that instead of a "crocodile committee" preaching austerity, it is possible to create committees tasked with stimulating different sectors, which is a much more pleasant pastime.

A relatively small and well-digitized economy like that of Estonia that only recently experienced a minor economic boom will likely adjust to this latest crisis more quickly than others that largely depend on mass production or tourism.

Jüri Ratas' patient and compromise-oriented style and keen ability to learn from past mistakes will likely ensure all manner of crisis measures broader public support than was imaginable during the time of the "infallible" Reform Party governments etc.

In this light, it is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of the question recently asked by Anvar Samost: "How much of our freedoms will still be intact by the end of the year?"

This is only the beginning of the crisis

On the other hand, we must keep in mind that this is only the beginning. No one knows how long direct effects of the epidemic will last nor how serious the recession to follow will be.

Looking at the current government, I have much less faith in them managing the economic crisis than I do when it comes to the coronavirus epidemic. The government's reins are held by politicians who prefer to engage in identity politics instead of addressing economic issues and who are more or less direct in saying that they've had it with all manner of experts trying to tell the government what to do.

However, it is not out of the question that liberal instincts will awaken in Isamaa and Center toward the end of the crisis and EKRE's "dream model" will be reversed.

Finally, it is also not unlikely that the government after taking authoritarian crisis measures too far and largely failing to manage the ensuing economic crisis will draw the ire of the people and the pendulum will swing back toward forces seeking openness and liberal approach.

No one yet knows which of these scenarios is the more likely. And it is too soon for forecasts. But one thing is clear – the effects of this crisis will stay with us for the entire decade, considerably reshaping political lines of force and social attitudes in Estonia and the world.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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