Mari-Liis Jakobson: Will voter turnout continue to dwindle?

Mari-Liis Jakobson.
Mari-Liis Jakobson. Source: Private collection

What will be different at the upcoming [local] elections? Will voter turnout continue to dwindle? The first question can be answered now, while the second requires a little patience. Mari-Liis Jakobson looks at what the looming elections will bring and what has changed little or not at all in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

All permanent residents of Estonia will be able to vote in local government council election in less than a week's time – starting next Monday. Every political observer has their own view of elections. I am first and foremost interested in whether voter turnout will continue on its downward trajectory or whether efforts to boost it will prove successful.

What's new?

So, what will be different for these elections? Perhaps the most visible change is the lifting of the outside display ban.

Over the last 16 years, major outside display advertisements have disappeared leading up to elections, leaving us with much smaller images of politicians' faces on television, in print and in person.

Larger than life politicians have now reappeared on walls of buildings, in streets and even fields. Printing houses and advertisers are living large, while the question on voters' lips is still what good is seeing the same slogan more often?

Advertising psychology tells us that while colossal posters hardly render us better informed, they help in terms of brand visibility. In other words, they help voters notice which parties or election coalitions are running in their region. Therefore, the ban having been lifted might benefit newcomers and election coalitions to some degree, while it is sure to please major parties with well-known brands.

The decision to lift the ban also benefits the taxpayer in freeing the police from having to check ambivalent advertisements as attempts to circumvent the prohibition. That said, it is unlikely to have a major effect on voter turnout.

On the other hand, campaign tents and politicians meeting with people face to face, that gained much in popularity when outside advertising was first banned, have not disappeared. True, this form of campaigning has not found much traction among Estonian voters. While some see it as an opportunity to establish direct contact with representatives, talk about problems and ask questions, others find the gauntlet fatiguing.

The other major change allows parties to pursue elections agitation on election day. While parties and candidates had to roll up their banners and pack up their tents on Saturday evening until recently, going after the undecided is a possibility on Sunday starting from these elections. Rumor has it parties have registered various street campaign events for Sunday.

I believe the last day will not change much for most voters. Most will cast their vote during preliminary voting during which elections agitation has always been allowed.

At the previous local elections in 2017, 52.3 percent of voters cast their vote before Sunday, while it came to two-thirds or 67.3 percent for European Parliament elections.

So, perhaps last-minute campaign tents might help convince a few stray souls to find their way to the nearest polling station, which is all the more likely as new electronic voter lists allow people to vote in whichever station in their electoral district. This might help nudge up voter turnout, if only by a little.

The third change is that most districts have shorter lists of candidates than previously. While this translates into less choice on the one hand, there is no clear correlation between the length of candidates lists and elections success.

Campaign content

There seems to be no great change in terms of campaign content. Looking at platforms, local elections still seem to be mostly about renovation and roadbuilding.

That said, the market situation is not exactly favorable when it comes to pouring money into concrete and asphalt. Construction prices are so high that local tenders keep falling through, with bids proving too expensive. While voters are always glad to see new kindergartens, perhaps the time is not right for such undertakings?

The debate society's recommendation of keeping one's eyes peeled for tricksters has also lost none of its relevancy. People are still promised things that cannot or should not be done on the local government level.

While local governments run schools, we need to ask ourselves whether developing different e-study materials on the city or rural municipality level is practical. Or another example; while it is not out of the question that tax exceptions might help liven up rural economy, with the exception of a few local taxes, such as street closure or parking fees, I cannot see how local governments could lay down more favorable taxes for themselves compared to their peers?

We can still see promises a la "even more of everything," including new roads, kindergartens, benefits and fixing everything that exists. One cannot help but think more than a few local governments would have to strike oil before they could afford half of it.

On the other hand, we are treated to a master class of vagueness. It warms the heart how many candidates seek to render local administration more involving, improve business climate and carry out a tiger's leap in local government offices.

More often than not the question of "how?" goes unanswered. Can we be sure local authorities will be more open to residents if we elect politician A over politician B? It is also hard to argue with the suggestion that the local government needs to be a partner and helper for companies and not a hindrance. But what does that really mean?

Alternatively, what steps are prescribed by an election promise according to which "Tallinn must become free and wise as a unicorn"? What does it mean? Will city officials be as creative in their decisions as the employees of a startup?

Still, I very much hope that as many local residents as possible will find their way to ballot boxes. I'm sure making a choice will not be easy for many – myself included. However, voter turnout at local elections has been in decline since 2009 and it is high time we reverse the trend.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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