Tõnis Saarts: Elections without the 'Russian card'?

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

It seems that local elections will not revolve around a single core problem with the potential of mobilizing voters in the capital this time. The so-called Russian card no longer seems to be working, while other potential conflicts lack a sufficient degree of drama, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Tallinn has hardly seen a local elections campaign the core conflict of which has not been one of pitting Estonians against Russians.

For as long as Edgar Savisaar ran the Center Party, the outline of the conflict was laid out long before the campaign even started. No matter how right-wing parties phrased their slogans, their core message was always cut and dry: "Let us overthrow the pro-Kremlin and corrupt city government and give power back to the capital's Estonians!"

But the rows of people willing to get behind this call are dwindling. Isamaa remains the only party attempting to reheat the conflict relying on old cliches. The Reform Party has adopted a very diplomatic line toward its coalition partner on Toompea Hill (Center), trying instead to paint the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) as the axis of evil permeating the Kremlin.

Father and son Helme (heads of EKRE – ed.) going after the Russian vote in Tallinn's Lasnamäe borough and elsewhere want as little as possible to be said of the opposition between the "pro-Kremlin" and "pro-Estonian" camps. The Russians do not constitute a problem at all for Eesti 200.

Another problem for those who would play the "Russian card" is the fact Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) and his team do not fit the bill as corrupt and pro-Kremlin. While there have been attempts to that effect, the old worn-out cliches do not seem to stick in Kõlvart's case.

That customary antagonism and old tricks no longer seem to work could be one reason the local elections campaign is off to a languid start. There seem to be no topics other than Tallinn's red bicycle paths with the potential of exciting voters and politicians. A masterstroke on the city government's part that made it the "owner" of at least one election topic this fall.

While Isamaa has made attempts to center the campaign around Russian schools, there seems to be little traction. Leaving aside the fact the administrative reform is not in the capacity of local elections, the main problem is that the issue is well-worn. Everyone realizes that no government is about to undertake a radical administrative reform in Estonia in the near future.

Desire to turn the administrative reform and the "Russian card" into key issues would require something new to be introduced into the debate. A new story or case to fuel passions and create an air of danger for both Estonians and Russians would be needed. As long as no such incident is on the horizon, we are looking at the first Tallinn elections without the "Russian card."

What could replace it? For the first time, green topics and those pertaining to urban environment have the potential to be relevant. Bicycle paths have indirectly already launched the more environmentally friendly city space debate, while a sufficiently sharp conflict to facilitate "pro" and "con" camps is still needed.

Couldn't a new axis of confrontation be created by tying together the green turn, electricity price hikes and certain municipal topics? The party able to capitalize on green and urban environment topics at these elections will likely reinforce their position in Estonian politics in general as environmental topics will become inescapable in the near future.

The coronavirus and vaccination could be another potential topic. That said, creating a mobilizing conflict is not easy if new restrictions are not laid down before elections. Those against measures will not budge, while the rest are slowly getting tired of the coronavirus subject matter.

It is similarly difficult to imagine immigration and the traditional family becoming the core topic in Tallinn. The marriage referendum question is off the agenda for the time being, while most Tallinners are still immune to immigration panic. While EKRE supporters care about immigration, the rest are still shrugging their shoulders, unable to perceive tangible problems.

Therefore, it seems that there will not be a single major problem to mobilize voters in Tallinn. The "Russian card" has become ineffective, while other potential conflicts lack the necessary drama.

It is possible I'm wrong, of course, as the outline of a core conflict often manifests during the week before elections. The party able to execute a corresponding conflict would become the election's biggest surprise.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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