Martin Mölder: Politics and balancing on the edge of the law

Martin Mölder.
Martin Mölder. Source: Maili Vilson/

The anticipated logic in politics is idealism instead or at least next to personal gain. If one stands out operating solely in self-interest, chasing a soft landing for oneself or one's party, things quickly head south, Martin Mölder finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The land swap deals, Silvergate, Porto Franco, Port of Tallinn, Autorollo, espresso machines, driver-babysitters, expenses benefits, illicit donations, competitions to find top public servants etc. There have been more than enough episodes of dubious merit in Estonian politics. Some have been legally watertight, others less so. All have been morally wrong. Power and wrapping it around one's finger sometimes go hand in hand.

Misuse of public authority seems to be a non-issue in Estonia when viewed in international comparison. On the contrary, everything seems to be just fine. Transparency International's corruption perception index puts Estonia in 13th place in the world. Even though we lost a point last year, Estonia's score has improved from one year to the next. The index is a top-down expert assessment. But what about the state of things looking from the bottom up, from the perspective of the Estonian electorate?

It turns out that the grassroots view is quite different. Voters are predominantly critical of the state of corruption in the country. Around three-quarters of Estonian voters polled have found corruption to be a problem in the last few years.

True, it is not perceived as the biggest problem. Asked to compare problems in terms of their importance, voters tend to highlight inflation and security. The survival of the Estonian people and culture also comes up before corruption, while the latter stubbornly retains its place among the top ten issues.

Perception of corruption is largely a problem of seeing the speck in another's eye but missing the log in one's own. If we ask people their political preference and how they evaluate the level of corruption in other parties (on a scale of -5 standing for "not corrupt" and 5 for "very corrupt"), the results are largely predictable.

Voters tend to find their party of choice to be uncorrupt and be critical of other political forces. The only political party that is rather held to be corrupt by its own supporters is the Center Party. Various scandals and court judgments have left their mark on Center's reputation over the years, with most voters of the mind that it is rather corrupt.

Party preference and level of corruption

Things aren't much better for the ruling Reform Party. Other parties' voters tend to regard the squirrels (Reform mascot – ed.) to rather be corrupt, and the strongest judgment from one party's voters for another also hits Reform. The average score of Conservative People's Party (EKRE) voters for Reform is 3.74 (where the maximum level of perceived corruption is 5 and the minimal -5).

The supporters of the Social Democratic Party (SDE) and Eesti 200 are the least critical of Reform, but even they hold Reform to be as corrupt as Center supporters find their party of choice. Only Reform voters feel their favorite political force is rather uncorrupt.

While almost everyone feels Center and Reform are corrupt, judgments are more controversial when it comes to EKRE. Reform supporters find EKRE to be strikingly corrupt, while SDE and Eesti 200 supporters are critical but somewhat less so. Center Party and Isamaa supporters tend to be neutral towards the national conservatives.

Opinions of Isamaa and the Social Democrats tend to be more neutral in general – no other party's supporters consider them to be clearly corrupt. Even though both parties have spent time in coalition governments, neither seems to have smeared its reputation too much. Non-parliamentary Eesti 200 are considered the least corrupt for obvious reasons. If it is power that corrupts, one would first need to seize it.

The reasons for these kinds of perceptions of corruption would require further research. But I would not be surprised if it turned out that one of the reasons is that politicians tend to get behavioral logic mixed up. For example, it tends to be entirely acceptable to do things in pursuit of personal gain in the world of business. Everything is fine as long as things fall within the confines of the law or at least balance on the edge. They who can turn the biggest profit within the existing legal framework wins.

This kind of balancing is much less permitted in the corridors of political power. Especially when it betrays shamelessly being after personal gain. Voters tend to perceive that almost instinctively. Whatever we might think of the state or how little trust we may have for parties or public institutions, everyone retains on some level the understanding that the state should act in public interests.

The anticipated political logic is idealism instead of personal gain, or at the very least next to it. If one stands out operating solely in self-interest, chasing a soft landing for oneself or one's party, things quickly head south. This could also serve as a reminder for voters when it comes time to hit the ballot boxes next spring. To ask themselves who the person they plan to vote for really is, what are their values and ideals and what do they stand for?

Idealistic people are hard to find. Since joining the European Union, the policy in Estonia has often been that of letting go or just drifting along. It is hard to think big and make bold decisions. Instead, people often strive to keep their cozy nest or create a new one. It is also difficult to have a different opinion. The general image of a transparent country free of corruption persists on some level, as there are few direct violations of the law in politics. However, voters feel that the makeup hides a wrinkled and rapidly aging countenance.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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