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Tõnis Saarts: Year without substantial debates

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The year 2020 could be described as lacking substantial debates. Future-oriented and meaningful public debate in terms of policy choices is becoming increasingly rare, which was especially evident this year, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Looking back at the year in politics and public debates, two topics have stolen the limelight: the coronavirus and the marriage referendum. The latter has either directly or indirectly tied into discussions over rights of minorities (whether "the gays should run to/in Sweden") and immigration (foreign labor and the lost strawberry harvest).

With the exception of the coronavirus crisis, all major public debates have been dictated by the Conservative People's Party (EKRE). A notable achievement from a party that only holds a fifth of Riigikogu seats.

However, the communicative aptitude of EKRE or its leaders is not the topic this time. The question we are asking is just how substantial and future-proof said debates have been.

What I mean by substantial is the presence of argumentation and evidence-based claims, while when it comes to future-oriented, I mean the question: "What would become of Estonia in 10, 20, 30 years if certain decisions were left unmade?"

When it comes to Covid debates, there is no sense in searching for insight and a long horizon as reactions need to be rapid and decision-makers are taking things one week or day at a time. However, rights of minorities, the marriage referendum and immigration have become all but matters of faith. People stand on either side of the divide in what has become trench warfare, firing from all barrels simultaneously, with argumentation and vision hardly on anyone's mind.

And so, 2020 has shaped up to be a year lacking substantial debate. Even if we consider the pension reform the only meaningful item of contention, most of the debate happened in 2019.

The public has not been treated to a single comprehensive debate over where to invest mountains of loan money coming Estonia's way. What would be the sensible and insensible choices here? Especially in the context of the 21st century after Covid.

The key issue being whether these vitamin shots for the budget could help Estonia escape the middle income trap in the future. And if so then how?

The National Audit Office recently published a rather troubling report that clearly suggests that recent population trends and regional policy approach holding, Estonia could have serious problems ensuring availability of public services (education, medical care etc.) in all parts of the country in a decade's time.

The audit received almost no reaction from parliamentary parties – public debate did not follow. And yet, even the most entrenched national conservative should understand that this will affect life in Estonia to a far greater degree than the marriage referendum in the near future. Where are the solutions? Could it be a completely new regional policy or more extensive immigration?

Let us look if only at the green turn and environmental issues. Even though this area has also become a battleground for modern religious wars, that should not be cause enough to avoid forward-facing debate on the issue.

The question is not whether Estonia should go along with the green turn or not but rather how to end up on the winning side in the medium-to-long-term – an innovative country that has successfully adjusted to 21st century green economy and exports its know-how, skills and technology.

It is easy to blame the government for reluctance to hold substantial, forward-facing debate. While it's also true that the current coalition seems to sport a very complex dynamic indeed, with some of its members seemingly trying to pull Estonia, complete with its values and economy, back to the previous century.

And yet, the fading of meaningful debate reflects much broader tendencies in modern democracies.

Viable democracies have traditionally been based on a functional public sphere that is home to reasoned debate observed by both the rulers and the majority of citizens. Public opinion that grows from these debates serves as important input for the society's goals and policy shaping.

However, what to do if the recently united public sphere has shattered into a thousand pieces in the social media age – shards the reflections from which no longer hit each other but that are dim and turned inwards… What to do if instead of knowledge- and evidence-based debate we are treated to dogmatic roaring meant to drown out the other side and public vilification of dissenters?

Will it become the norm for the coming decade? What would that mean for Estonia's recently innovative and progressive image and its developmental outlook? How would it impact the quality and viability of democracy? These questions remain unanswered. But perhaps the answers are taking shape somewhere and we will see them next year.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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