Kristina Kallas: A wasted crisis for Estonian democracy

Estonia 200 chairman Kristina Kallas.
Estonia 200 chairman Kristina Kallas. Source: ERR

There are many sayings about lessons to be learned from a crisis, but they all agree that crises are there so we could come out the other side better, stronger, wiser or cleaner in terms of moral categories. While the lessons of the current crisis will become apparent after some time, it is clear we have already wasted one opportunity, Kristina Kallas writes.

The social state of anxiety created by the coronavirus in Estonia and the resulting emergency situation and people's preparedness to stick together and unite for a common cause gave Prime Minister Jüri Ratas an extraordinary opportunity to reach out to the opposition and take a step toward ending the political trench warfare that has plagued Estonia for years.

Let us imagine that during the government's March 12 deliberations when it had to decide whether to declare an emergency situation, effectively freezing the economy and hiking social anxiety, the PM had proposed taking a break to consult with Kaja Kallas (chairman of the opposition Reform Party – ed.) and Indrek Saar (chairman of SDE – ed.).

We have 101 wise and experienced people who have been given a mandate by the people of Estonia to run the country and make decisions. This wisdom needs to be used in a crisis situation, which lever the Riigikogu Council of Elders provides.

The emergency situation strategy and forms of cooperation could have been agreed on with the opposition. They would have brought to the table advice, broader horizons and scope. Opposition parties would have rolled up their sleeves and put their people to work. The manpower of Jüri Ratas' government would have been tripled and Estonia would have benefited from consensual decisions across all interest groups.

Benefits only for the few

However, none of it came to pass. On the contrary, the circle of decision-makers became closer still.

I don't know the reason and perhaps Jüri Ratas will tell the story in his memoirs one day. Is it because "they" also refused to cooperate back in the day or personal grudges? Or perhaps it was out of fear that the opposition would get too much credit for its ideas, in other words the fear of losing political control?

Or simply that the PM didn't even think of it because it's not the Estonian way? While it actually is since the People's Front and the Estonian Committee did join forces at a crucial point in time.

But it has not been the Estonian way for a long time that has kept the control system of our representative democracy vulnerable and rife with conflict. Unity and solidarity are in short supply despite the PM's frequent use of these words. Building a more coherent society means listening to and heeding the opinions of everyone, including the opposition.

The United Kingdom's aggressive watchdog-style opposition is not a good fit for the Estonian democratic system for two reasons.

Firstly, because Estonians are not combative by nature and rather seek to avoid conflict, while an opposition that only produces criticism and attacks leaders is simply exhausting. For us, it is not a constructive approach.

Secondly, our proportional electoral system results in a parliament made up of parts of various interest groups that lacks, in most matters, clear us-them lines that are typical of two-party systems and where opinions and positions are more crisscrossed between different parties.

Nordic political culture where broad-based consensus is sought before making difficult decisions has not taken root in Estonia. I hope we can say it has not taken root yet. The crisis at hand constitutes a missed opportunity for Estonian democracy in terms of taking a step in that direction. Political culture that seeks polarization and antagonism endures even in a situation where it benefits very few people and is costly for many.

Peak polarization

The us versus them polarization reached its zenith when the current government took office a year ago. We could see how it paralyzed society and reduced the quality of decisions, from endless scandals revolving around ministers to poor legislation that is now on its way to the Supreme Court.

This polarization was not invented by the current government as the Reform Party used to only make "its own" decision and introduced to Estonian political culture the practice of steamrolling the opposition on the receiving end of which current PM Jüri Ratas has been many times.

Similar steamrolling tactics have been employed by Center Party city governments in Ida-Viru County and the vote is still out in terms of who has the honor of having invented the practice first. However, it is not a practice worth upholding or one that could make our country stronger or people happier.

Unfortunately, the crisis was not enough to unwedge the gears of our political system that have become stuck over three decades. Change was not found and the crisis was allowed to go to waste.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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