Jüri Saar: The advent of the zombie parties

Jüri Saar.
Jüri Saar. Source: ERR

Some parties reach a new qualitative stage in their retrogression that could be described as zombification. Such processes are evident in Europe and the United States, as well as in Estonia, Jüri Saar writes.

Looking at recent political processes in the Western world, including Estonia, a massive onslaught of populism is plain to see. Politicians who fit the description have a keen eye for deficiencies and a knack for blowing them out of proportion. The solutions they propose are declarative, unfeasible or trivial and come with the condition of more power and say for those meant to execute them.

It has been suggested that a measure of populism is inevitable in politics, and there might be something to this theory. However, a closer look at pureblood quintessential populists reveals that they spout nothing but hot air consisting mainly of railing against the competition and grand promises that are never redeemed.

The greatest damage of this to society lies in the fact that populists-politicians always squander common assets, whether material resources or social capital, that has been gradually accumulated before their time. Populists are parasites who only know how to exist at someone else's expense. They do not know how to improve things and just siphon energy in place of which they offer growing quantities of populism.

Zombification elsewhere in the world

Some parties reach a new qualitative stage in their retrogression that could be described as zombification. In this one-way process that gradually becomes a deepening anomalous political discourse, two currents can be distinguished. Firstly, new parties created for the express purpose of seizing power through unchecked prevarication and populism. In other words, the tactic of "seize power first and look at what you can do with it second."

Examples of such neopopulist parties so to speak are Hungary's ruling Fidesz, Truth and Justice in Poland, the Italians' Five Star Movement, Spanish Vox, the French National Rally etc.

All lack a clear ideological pull toward the right or the left as all are omnivores, eclectics. They sometimes even refuse to admit playing politics, instead treating events as a performance, a parody of recent so-called mainstream politics. Something along the lines of the Ühtse Eesti Suurkogu (satirical theatrical performance – ed.) in Estonia.

Populists are about as fit to run countries as a saddle is on a pig, which fact has been repeatedly demonstrated whenever they have participated in governing. I believe that the best answer to the question of what it is populists do was provided by leader of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) Martin Helme: "They control the agenda using traditional means: provocation, escalation, improvisation."

Where populists are truly active and successful, however, is embezzling state resources and fostering suspicious foreign ties.

The other current sees established parties with a distinguished history and traditions plot a course first for populism and then zombification. We have seen these kinds of processes in two leading countries of the West: United States of America and the United Kingdom.

In America, the Grand Old Party has become a parody of itself under Donald Trump, a bona fide zombie party.

While the "great work of the great leader" was left unfinished, it is clear the previous U.S. president made the country smaller and less influential in the world. Trump managing to give decent people a scare with his presence and unpredictable behavior in no ways equals becoming more influential in the conventional meaning.

He picked fights with recent allies and cozied up to autocrats in countries usually considered non-democratic. As thanks, some of them (Kim Jong-un) called him a "stupid old man," while others (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) chucked his patronizing letter into the trash.

Trump promised his voters nothing but himself and to "make America great again" at the recent presidential election. He forgot to mention how he had been the one making tireless efforts to render America smaller over the previous four years.

It is said that Trump was for a long time undecided on whether he should launch his destructive campaign using the Democratic of Republican party as he cared naught for the political positions of either. To the detriment of the conservatives, the hammer landed on them, and the damage the Trump era has done to the GOP is still being tallied up.

He still has great influence in the party, with Republicans who supported a premature end to his term not doing so well. More than half of Republican supporters still believe that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election.

In any case, the situation in USA today suggests that the leader of the free world returning to normalcy is far from a done deal. Provided the Americans fail to clean their Augean stables, they are looking at new political concussions at the 2022 (midterm) and 2024 (presidential) elections.

Boris Johnson took the UK out of the European Union despite not being a Brexit supporter before. When still Mayor of London, Johnson suggested that "no one in their right mind wants to leave the European Union. The businessmen do not want it. The City of London does not want it. It will not happen." However, he quickly understood what a great topic of conversation leaving the EU made and how well it supported his plans of seizing power.

This ushered in a campaign of shameless lying in the UK, with people told about astronomical sums the European Union was demanding on a weekly basis. The people were intimidated with talk of Polish plumbers and Islamic terrorists allegedly orchestrated from Brussels, coupled with promises to make the UK "great and influential again."

The results have been just the opposite and not only because of Brexit. The UK is in the throes of several simultaneous crises the common denominator of which is difficulty coping with rapid changes.

Most people see Brexit as a failure. An acute shortage of truck drivers is causing deliveries of everything from food to motor fuel to be late. Eastern European turkey pluckers and pork processors leaving the country is threatening to leave the Brits without their Christmas turkey and roast pork this holiday season. The Scotting independence referendum is making its way back onto the agenda, and the list of problems goes on.

The European Union is not an ideal community of states, while it is undoubtedly the best this continent could do. The Brits left the circle of decision-makers but have not been invited to sit on any other presidium as compensation.

Even their so-called special transatlantic bond where the UK served as an intermediary between the USA and EU has rather weakened since the former elected a new president. The Brits could gain a new and more important role only if American-European relations were to hit a serious low point.

Populism leading to zombification in the two Western countries shares similar traits. Both have a charismatic leader channeling power from the institutional level to the personal. This charisma tends to be destructive and point to deepening personality pathology. Whereas it does not just concern what is happening in the top echelons. The entire management structure will gradually be moved to a new foundation, a basic relationship also known as clientelism.

The main characteristic of this relationship is upwards responsibility and unconditionally following orders coming the other way, which is in direct contrast to top-down accountability in democracy.

This will see the gradual zombification of the party, with everyone who finds the practice distasteful pushed aside. Active members are required to be loyal without fault and sacrifice their more nuanced emotions on the altar of party interests.

At the same time, massive propaganda is brought to bear to condition the electorate and ensure the party a lasting position of power in the long term. Once this turn is completed, a democratic society has become autocratic.

Zombification in Estonia

Coming now to the political reality of Estonia, we can see similar processes here. The disappearance of the Center Party's perpetual leader (Edgar Savisaar – ed.) likely means the party is on track for normalization. Which is good news for the entire country. It will take more time, with some past wrongdoings still in need of ironing out, but it is clear Center has broken free from the shadow of zombification.

At the same time, we have also gained a classic zombie party in EKRE the leaders of which have sought nothing but power from the first and have not shied away from questionable methods on that path. The fact EKRE took over an existing party's (People's Union) apparatus, members and guarantees seems to be a minor technical detail. Besides, we all know that creating a completely new party from scratch has been made as difficult as democratically possible in Estonia.

While EKRE managed to make it to the government after the previous Riigikogu elections (in 2019 – ed.), they hardly did anything to benefit the state and voters during that time. The result was to be expected, considering the party's short bench and the prevalence of oddities in its ranks. The so-called deep state remained the target of constant verbal abuse, this despite the fact that EKRE had in the meantime come to power and become part of that very deep state in the process. Everything was still terrible and required overhauling immediately.

Minister of the Interior Mart Helme started tearing down existing structures and tried to create a personally loyal law enforcement force, accusing officials of politicization. It was recently and quite naively suggested that Minister of Finance Martin Helme was actually a sharp pencil and crafty at handling state finances. Unfortunately, the only feat that comes to mind saw an attempt to pay a bunch of Americans for some vague know-how. Therefore, EKRE was a zombie party when it was created, remained one in the government and continues as such in the opposition.

Isamaa also finds itself on the slippery slope toward zombification. The process began back when the party merged with Res Publica. The former was in its day an unprecedented political-technological project for seizing power.

They succeeded (in 2003 – ed.), while what professor Rein Taagepera had described as the party's leaders "lacking an inner moral compass" quickly became apparent after that. Res Publica leaders' thin political capital and lack of skill when tackling actual problems made marrying an existing force (Isamaaliit) a matter of life and death for the newcomers. Because the latter where also having a tough time of it, the parties merged.

This gave rise to the Isamaa and Res Publica Union (IRL) the patriotic side of which quickly dissipated, allowing a whole new breed of political animal to go about its business in the shadow of the old shell. Regular cleansings followed, with each wave robbing the party of some of its idealism, vision and principles and adding more political technology and populist busywork.

The current leaders of Isamaa boasting past accomplishments immediately reminds one of anti-corruption efforts and using various indicators to demonstrate success. Of course, it later turned out that the corrupt ones had donned clever disguises and were peddling residence permits right under the resistance's nose, as members of the party board in fact.

More "progress" on the road towards political corruption and cementing the current political landscape was made when a system of supporting parties from the state budget based on how many Riigikogu seats they get was introduced. The system still persists.

Direct support for parties and the so-called Riigikogu protection money are likely the least regulated parts of the entire state budget. And in a situation where the latter is distributed through ministries, at least on paper, state budget support for political parties is transferred to their bank accounts with no questions asked in terms of its use. Leaders of parties can spend it on whatever they wish, down to burying it in the backyard.

Next came the free higher education project that was little else than liquidating the recently functional higher education system and virtually constituted cutting higher education off from private funding. Because higher education is intrinsically tied to research and development, the populist move aimed at wooing new voters also condemned science to a chronic shortage of resources.

While we can increasingly hear the lament of officials, professors and scientists, saying it cannot go on like this, it often slips people's mind that we have Isamaa to thank for this situation. Besides, offering thing for "free" is a one-way street embarking on which is easy but turning back before complete deadlock unimaginably difficult.

Isamaa's recent feat of heroics concerns "setting money free" that similarly to their other attempts at attracting voters began with great fanfare and the sounding of trumpets. It is clear by now that the recent system of saving up for retirement meant to help least fortunate people cope in the future was sunk as a result (of Estonia's funded pensions reform – ed.). We can be happy if the money (people withdrew from second pillar funds – ed.) is used to pay off fast loans and does not end in the hands of con artists.

The bulk of the problem will fall on future governments once people reach the retirement age and will have no one except the state to turn to for help. Not to mention the below the belt blow delivered to all manner of common future-oriented undertakings that require people to see beyond the present and care about society on a broader level.

Aiming for absolute power

Populist parties are always aiming not just for power, but absolute power. This requires impeccable party discipline and preparedness to combat whatever kind of in-house and external enemies.

Because populist parties' inroads to power and their electorates tend to overlap, such political organizations are fierce competitors and always looking for ways to decimate the competition. This is not always immediately evident and fellow populists at some distance might even be treated to kind words.

The previous coalition in Estonia included two zombie parties that had temporarily teamed up in the name of power and were sucking the life out of the third partner.

What else could every new week full of apologies have meant for the Center Party after EKRE had left another steaming political pile somewhere. Isamaa never had anything to say about it, except reporting how smoothly coalition council meetings went and worrying about the coalition staying together.

As soon as Jüri Ratas' Center Party finally realized the trap in which it had been caught, the coalition ended. However, the damage had already been done as Ratas' blinding desire to be prime minister had rendered EKRE fit for the court so to speak.

EKRE and Isamaa are still competitors and largely share the same electorate: the better EKRE are doing, the worse for Isamaa and vice versa. To an extent, Isamaa can be seen as EKRE Light and the national conservatives as Isamaa Strong.

Herein lies the key to what both of our zombie parties were doing leading up to local elections. For them, it was not about local topics or the makeup of municipality councils but just another stage in the project of coming to power in Estonia. Both carried out an intensive and fell-funded elections campaign, and it seems EKRE and Isamaa sponsors have deep pockets. Perhaps we will one day learn how much money they received and from where.

We saw the faces of EKRE and Isamaa candidates and were treated to their bombastic promises on the radio and television ad nauseam as recently as last week. However, trying to make sense of their campaigns, Isamaa promised to dethrone the Russians in Tallinn and urged other political forces to join them in a grand opposition.

Playing the nationality card at local elections in no uncertain terms was likely the final life buoy of Isamaa today, since the only other thing they have to offer is hollow-sounding patriotism. The party, struggling to keep its nose above the 5 percent election threshold nationwide, is still pursuing in-house cleansing campaigns and tried to be the mosquito sitting on the bull's horns and boasting all the progress made at plowing.

EKRE had also stationed its cavalry in the capital as even the Bolsheviks knew that one first needs to "take the postal and central telegraph offices and seize alcohol and weapons warehouses." A lot of wealth and development potential in Estonia is concentrated in Tallinn, and those in power in the capital inevitably have a lot of say in all matters.

It is clear as day that the zombified EKRE have no ideas for the local government level, which is why we are seeing astronomical promises and castles in the sky.

The party's messengers say that Estonia should lower the price of electricity, while they fail to mention how that should be achieved outside of switching to planned economy. The entire Estonian population is treated to the left-populist message that the current government's policy will cause massive poverty.

In addition, we are told that the EU wants to flood Estonia with migrants as cheap labor, which is a clear example of right-wing populism. It is furthermore suggested that mandatory vaccination is robbing people of their freedom and that EKRE stands unwavering in the defense of "its people" and will not allow recent injustice to persist – just more populist malarkey.

EKRE chairman Martin Helme recently demanded Estonia ensure itself full energy independence. Anyone with two seconds to spare in which to think about it, hears it as little more than "echoes in an empty barrel." Or perhaps it was simply a "dog whistle" aimed at local Russians as what else except the light blue gas pipe coming from Russia could ensure Estonia "future and unending energy supply."

Only a simpleminded person gives their vote and with it power to make decisions to those spewing such rhetoric, while that is precisely where these messages are aimed. Unfortunately, we have seen the glory days of zombie parties recently, looking at their elections performance. Their fall from grace will arrive once voters begin to see the utter emptiness and lack of principle behind the populists' glistening facade.

We would all do well to understand that the world is a complicated place and while simple solutions to complicated problems might seem attractive, they are usually either ineffective or downright harmful.

Progressive, normal political forces in Estonia and the world need to do everything in their power to unmask the danger of the process of political zombification for societies. Once this realization dawns on voters, today's rowdy populists will be nothing more than a bad smell being carried away by a fresh breeze.

The voters have spoken

The 2021 local elections in Estonia are over and the voters have made their decision. Zombie parties clocked rather a modest result compared to their active and costly campaigns. We can say that both EKRE (9.5 percent) and Isamaa (7.1 percent) failed in Tallinn despite channeling their best effort there. Neither party's chances of making the coalition are great.

It is possible they will fare better in other larger cities (such as Tartu and Pärnu), while their spiteful and derogatory campaigns hardly painted them as convenient partners.

The nationwide result of our zombie parties that came to 21.6 percent (EKRE 13.2 percent and Isamaa 8.4 percent) suggests that their time is slowly ending. At best, they can team up to rule a few local governments together.

Political analysts' predictions according to which the 2020s will be the decade of the populists seem less likely today. We also have reason to hope that the pendulum is already swinging back towards the center in the Western world as a whole.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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