Politics becomes wall-to-wall religious war in an emotionally polarized party system. Manifestations of this can already be seen in Estonia. Belief in one's own excellence and the other side's wretchedness is so blinding that mistakes are virtually never owned up to, Martin Mölder finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
It seemed at one point, about a month ago, that the Riigikogu elections campaign will sink into a black hole we will all find difficult to climb out of again this time around. When Siim Kallas wrote on the pages of Postimees how everyone in Estonia needs to choose between pure evil and the Reform Party a new page was turned in Estonian politics. It was and remains a moment from which we can move toward even greater emotional polarization. But also where we could stop for a moment, think about it and starting moving in a different and better direction.
Attitudes have been sharp on the Reform-EKRE axis for some time. Direct and mutual political opposition on the level of the parties themselves follows years of tensions in constituencies. Polling data from earlier in the year demonstrates that supporters of the two parties harbor deeply hostile and conflicting attitudes toward one another. Allow me to give two examples.
Asked to evaluate the intelligence of the supporters of their party of choice as well as others, it is no surprise that likeminded voters are regarded as the most intelligent. Reform Party supporters regard themselves as the most intelligent compared to all the others. On a scale of -5 to +5, Reform voters give themselves a score of +3.77. The supporters of no other political party think that highly of themselves.
This lofty self-image comes with very critical attitudes toward the main competitor. Reform Party supporters give Conservative People's Party (EKRE) voters an intelligence score of -3.81. Placing themselves on top, their main competitor is seen in the most negative light.
The intelligence of EKRE voters earned negative scores by the supporters of all parties. While EKRE supporters tended to respond in kind, it was with less emotion. EKRE supporters see all other parties' voters, except their first choice and Isamaa, as unintelligent.
The picture is similar but even more contrasting when voters were asked to assess supporters of their favorite party and others in terms of whether they are prejudiced. Emotions were once again strongest among Reform supporters when it came to EKRE voters.
Supporters of one's favorite party are regarded as least prejudiced. At the same time, a highly negative score is attributed to EKRE voters. Supporters of other parties also tend to see EKRE voters as prejudiced, while the sentiment is once more much stronger among Reform backers.
These are just two specific issues, while we have reason to believe these divides and contrast go much deeper. It could be suggested we saw something similar between Reform and Center Party supporters over a decade ago.
Yes, mutual negative emotions were flying high. But the social divide ran along different lines back then. It had more to do with ethnicity and different generations. Today, it rather runs straight through the middle of society instead of the periphery, splitting families, partners and friends. If it exists, it is not widely talked about yet, as there is great disapproval. This will have its effects.
The Reform Party going along with Siim Kallas' proposed rhetoric means accepting EKRE's game rules. For the latter, provocative, emotional and apocalyptic politics have been the modus vivendi from the first. It has brought them success and a solid position on the Estonian political landscape.
Peculiarly enough, we may need one such party simply to keep us from complacency. But having two or more parties dancing to this tune would probably do much more harm to Estonian politics.
Politics becomes wall-to-wall religious war in an emotionally polarized party system. Manifestations of this can already be seen in Estonia. Belief in one's own excellence and the other side's wretchedness is so blinding that mistakes are virtually never owned up to. The adversary is not just pure evil but also to blame for everything bad that happens, even if they clearly have no connection to it.
It is to be hoped that voters will signal they are not fond of such politics in a way that is felt by party leaders. They have the levers to dial back and alleviate the vindictive haughtiness and disdain taking shape today.
The electorate souring is not a good development. Perhaps voters would like to hear something tangible and meaningful regarding major challenges Estonia is facing and how to solve them. Every party has the opportunity to prioritize a positive and comprehensive program above all. It would be a shame were this opportunity not taken.
Data based on results from a Norstat Eesti AS poll with funding from the Young Estonia grant of the Postimees Foundation. The poll was conducted in January of 2022 among 1,021 respondents.
Editor: Marcus Turovski