Five political lessons from the coronavirus crisis

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Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Reform Party made constant efforts to demonstrate that the approach of Jüri Ratas' government to solving the crisis was misguided. Why then is [Prime Minister] Kaja Kallas resorting to almost identical measures and restrictions today? Turning the crisis into an object of political point-scoring has failed for all parties, Tõnis Saarts says in Vikerraadio daily comment.

March marks a year since Estonia declared a coronavirus emergency situation and the life we were accustomed to was turned upside down. While the situation is far worse today than it was a year ago, there is enough for a short summary and to try and pinpoint the main political lessons of the virus crisis? Allow me to offer five.

Lesson 1. Democracy and the rule of law more resilient than thought

Journalist Anvar Samost said last spring: "Let us see how many of our liberties will still be intact by year's end." I also forecast that the then coalition Conservative People's Party (EKRE) would try to utilize the crisis and put Estonia on the non-liberal path followed by Hungary and Poland.

But Estonian democracy and the rule of law proved much more resilient than we expected.

Why? The main reason is probably that we had a coalition government with two rather pro-West partners that managed to keep the third's less liberal impulses in check. The crisis provides food for thought on the undeniable virtues of coalition governments and multiparty systems in a world rank with populism.

Lesson 2. Political profit in short supply

Which is not to say there haven't been attempts. The Helme family and EKRE tried to use the virus crisis as an excuse to limit foreign labor and students coming to Estonia and redefine the core principles of migration policy. Were they successful? No!

The national conservatives' coalition partners took the edge off the initially much more radical bill until it was dropped altogether. While EKRE managed to send encouraging messages to its core voters, the party's support rating remained largely unchanged. What is even more significant, however, is how the Estonian voter forgot to reward the Center Party and Jüri Ratas for effective crisis management in spring.

This suggests that the crisis has not proved a source of political capital for any party in Estonia. The nature and dynamics of the virus crisis simply aren't compatible with the logic of political profit.

Lesson 3. No alternatives and politicization does not work

Let us recall how the Reform Party, when still in the opposition, constantly tried to demonstrate how the approach of Jüri Ratas' government to the crisis was misguided and how Reform would effect a much more effective paradigm while using more modest restrictions.

Some members of the party went as far as suggesting Estonia emulate Sweden. Where are these Swedish path enthusiasts now? Why is Kaja Kallas now applying restrictions and measures that are almost identical to the ones employed by Ratas' government last spring? Let us admit that there simply aren't any serious alternatives and all parties have failed in turning the crisis into a political battleground.

Lesson 4. Ignore experts at your own peril

Both Kaja Kallas and Jüri Ratas have learned this lesson the hard way by now. The former hesitated when reacting to the recent wave in November, while the latter – contrary to expert recommendations – allowed things to be relaxed when the spring wave was nearing its peak.

While it is true that experts mustn't dictate decisions to leaders, even politicians should have realized by now that respecting scientists and their take on the situation is absolutely vital for overcoming the crisis.

Lesson 5. Thick state and proactive government have returned

Big government is back! It is nothing short of astounding how strongly the path dependency effect has manifested in Estonia in this crisis. In other words, if some things have been successful and done based on certain convictions for a time, old habits and thought models become incredibly difficult to break out of – even when starting disaster in the face.

We recently learned that Estonian salary support instruments and other government support measures are trailing the rest of Europe by some margin, falling short even of measures in some African countries. This is where neoliberal path dependency manifests: "Everyone is in charge of their own happiness, while the budget needs to be balanced."

It has been understood in more than a few places in Europe that a "thick" state that interferes in the economy and is prepared to contribute enough resources to alleviate crises will emerge victorious in the end. While those adhering to the principles of the minimal state might suffer serious setbacks later on.

It is this final lesson that our politicians are only now learning that could end up costing our society the most. While a supplementary state budget is in the pipeline, time will have to tell whether it comes as too little, too late.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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