Tõnis Saarts: Elections as litmus test for organizational capacity

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

Having a considerable nationwide party organization seems mandatory if one aims to become an established and proven force in the parliament, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The recent local elections vividly demonstrated that the competition is not just between parties as trademarks and bearers of political ideology, with organizational capacity proving even more decisive.

Lacking strong candidate lists populated with locally well-known people could leave a party enjoying stratospheric nationwide popularity with a mediocre result. And vice versa: parties dangerously close to the 5 percent election threshold managed to put in a solid showing courtesy of a strong party organization.

Therefore, party organizations matter and doubly so in local elections context. The results of the 2021 elections serve as excellent proof. Why else did the Center Party and Reform Party manage relatively good results despite a consistent ratings decline, losing just 2-3 percent of votes nationwide? Because both sport functional party organizations as old parties.

Why else did Isamaa take a lot more seats than expected in many places despite its nationwide support rating teetering on the verge of the election threshold? Once again, the answer lies in having a robust party structure next to pursuing a professional campaign.

Even the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) did not manage to double its result because of the strong trademark of the Helme family, with success rather following hard work at reanimating and considerably expanding the old People's Union organization. The results were modest in places where relevant efforts came too late, such as Ida-Viru County.

Clocking a good local elections result is the number one precondition for success at Riigikogu elections for new parties. This is vividly demonstrated in recent Estonian political history.

Can you name a single party to have managed a long stay in the parliament after failing to make the 5 percent threshold at consecutive local elections?

I cannot think of any. While we have plenty of examples of parties that have made the Riigikogu but have then decided that a party organization is not worth the hassle, which caused them to put in a weak showing at the locals and also drop out of the parliament in the next cycle. The Greens and the Free Party come to mind as good examples.

A clear contrast between the Free Party and Eesti 200 can be seen today. The latter's organizational efforts give it a much better chance at becoming something more than a single election cycle's protest movement.

Therefore, it seems having a considerable nationwide party organization seems mandatory if one aims to become an established and proven force in the parliament. This realization directly contradicts the idea that the time of membership-based mass parties is over and that a few hundred online activists is all it takes to maintain a successful political organization. That does not seem to be the case, at least if one wants to build up a sustainable party.

Margit Tavits, an American political scientist sporting Estonian roots, has studied party organizations in post-communist democracies and finds that a strong and populous party structure helps leaders gauge the expectations of potential voters.

Why are the Helmes so good at appealing to their core voters? They have, using their party apparatus, developed a very accurate feel for what a typical EKRE voter thinks and would like to hear.

Tavits also emphasizes that a strong party organization serves as an insurance policy for hard times. Such parties can mobilize their members and their contacts to get enough votes and survive lean times even during periods of low popularity. Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) serve as perhaps the best examples of this. A loyal core constituency based on a relatively strong organizational base is what is keeping them going.

Even though it is much more attractive for the media to concentrate on prominent candidates and poll results when covering local elections, deciding matters is a far more down to Earth factor: parties' organizational ability to have well-known and respected people on their candidate lists and involve them in campaigns.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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