Tõnis Saarts on SALK activities: That is how it works in the 21st century

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Political scientist Tõnis Saarts said, when commenting on the activities of the Liberal Citizen Foundation (SALK) before the March 2023 parliamentary elections, that preparing for elections in this manner is self-explanatory in the 21st century and something professional parties know to value and take advantage of.

Saarts talked about the roots of value conflicts in Europe and a relevant breakthrough in Estonia, said that the conditions for polarization have been met in Estonia and that he was surprised it took Estonian political parties this long to discover the potential of sociological studies in Vikerraadio's Friday interview.

It is usually the case that the dust settles for a time once the government is formed after elections. Good political practice prescribes giving the new cabinet 100 days free of criticism, while this has not happened, and I cannot recall any former government being off to such a tumultuous start. The opposition is blaming the coalition of lying to society, with the scandal revolving around previously unhailed tax hikes. Elections ads talked about a balanced budget instead. Does it constitute lying to the voter, as claimed by the opposition forces? Should campaign ads be detailed?

Whether it constitutes lying depends on one's definition of the latter. For me, lying is purposefully hiding or embellishing data or information that one has. I do not know how much information about the fiscal or economic situation the Reform Party had going into elections.

Looking at the financial situation, tax and fiscal policy, I believe economists have been saying for the past decade that the current tax system cannot go much further, especially considering society's heightened expectations when compared to the 1990s. Change will have to come eventually.

The geopolitical reality caused us to sharply hike our defense spending – from 2 percent of GDP to 3 percent. A considerable increase. It was clear that this needs to be covered somehow. Parties also fielded some pretty expensive election promises not all of which could be thrown overboard.

Therefore, it was difficult not to notice that we would be deep in the red. The relevant question was how long would we be willing to carry that deficit and whether a course for fiscal balance would ever be plotted again.

I believe that everyone the least bit up to speed on Estonian politics and economy had to have known that tax rates would have to catch up eventually.

Looking back, is this narrative of the coalition lying solid if we think back to how the Center Party has been promising a progressive income tax system from one election to the next, while it has never been done. Or when Isamaa promised to hike family benefits and make the second pension pillar voluntary, there was very little talk of how they planned to pay for it. Have they been lying to the voter too?

We could pose the question, while it is also quite clear that we cannot expect politicians to make good on 100 percent of their promises, especially in the conditions of coalition governments. A part of promises will always be dumped at coalition talks, with a compromise sought for tougher or more radical reforms.

No voter can expect their party of choice to realize 100 percent of its program. The reality around us, society and economy are always changing, which is why promises made at the start of an election cycle might not be relevant by the time it comes to elections. The social backdrop, economic situation and even the geopolitical reality might change considerably.

I cannot really recall anyone talking about crisis preparedness or the need to combat epidemics leading up to the 2019 elections. That's because the coronavirus crisis was an utterly unforeseen event. It was the same in 2007 when the campaign revolved around the Bronze Soldier. Yes, it was an important event, but the election cycle that followed was filled with the economic crisis all the way to 2011, which caused the Reform Party to throw out most of its promises, including a sharp income tax reduction. It all ground to a halt, and now the tax rate is being hiked instead.

So the voter will always be a little disappointed? And no one can realize their program in full because Estonia always ends up with coalition governments?

That a part of society will be disappointed with the election result and what comes next is inevitable, especially for the losing camp.

On the other hand, we should not forget the principle of responsiveness in representative democracy. I would explain it as matching public expectations.

And representative democracy only tends to work when politicians gauge social moods, expectations etc.

If politicians fail to keep an eye on it or care, it will undermine not just themselves and their parties but democracy as a whole because people will no longer see elections make any difference – that while promises are made, what's really happening is something else.

Is that when they say that politicians have become alienated from the people, from society?

Precisely. There must be responsiveness in terms of public expectations, especially in key matters, such as taxes.

My criticism is that the correct thing to do would have been to talk about it. Even if we cannot call it lying as such, the Reform Party should have if not launched a tax debate then at least not tried to marginalize it.

I believe that Reform members had no illusions about the importance of the topic.

Especially considering they were also part of the previous government.

Of course it was difficult for Reform to go along with it as their main opponents EKRE promised to lower taxes instead. Whereas Reform have historically been promising lower taxes as well, saying that the Estonian tax system is the best in the world and does not need repairs – they've been saying that for at least two decades.

Rather we've been told about fine tuning...

So the turn was not an easy one to make.

Tõnis Saarts and Merilin Pärli. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

This brings us to another hot topic over the past week and a half – the Liberal Citizen Foundation (SALK) and its support for liberal ideology. The conservatives have been hot and bothered since an Eesti Ekspress article looked into the foundation's activities, claiming they amounted to illicit donations. At the same time, if we look at the conservative side of the political fence, there have been many more associations supporting corresponding policy there.

We can mention major Isamaa sponsors Parvel Pruunsild and Margus Linnamäe, owner of daily Postimees the opinion section of which clearly sports a conservative tonality. The Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition (SAPTK) uses its Objektiiv media portal to help reinforce EKRE's view of the world. NGO Institute for Societal Studies also tends to run polls backing conservative values. But now, Isamaa suddenly claim that SALK decided the election and helped the current coalition to power. Was it a case of SALK manufacturing the recent election result?

Having been involved with public polling and pre-election surveys, it is difficult for me to agree to this criticism, because in terms of what SALK did – welcome to the 21st century. That is how you poll before elections.

You map out your supporters and their preferences, try to paint a broader social picture of how different voter groups feel about various topics. SALK said right away that they want to benefit liberal parties. And that is what they did.

Now, how to regulate the activities of such foundations or organizations makes for a separate matter. Isamaa vetoed a bill that attempted to introduce such regulation in the previous Riigikogu.

There is also the question of how to define such organizations. Can we say they are working for or exist for the benefit of certain parties?

I'm sure legal experts could provide a better answer, while there are questions.

Did SALK do something differently? Are their patterns of behavior somehow different from those of their conservative peers I mentioned?

What SALK did was refrain from sharing their survey results with the media, unlike NGO Institute for Societal Studies. SALK handed them over to parties that it felt needed the support.

From there, the methods they used were pretty standard. That there are think tanks capable of data analysis, that they carry out pre-election polls and that they sometimes have ideological inclinations – all of it is very common in modern Western democracies.

Frankly, I'm a little surprised that political parties in Estonia have only now discovered the potential of sociological studies. I would have guessed they had invested in such things before and realized how such surveys can be extremely useful.

But in terms of whether SALK really influenced something – electoral behavior and the entire electoral situation have so many factors and variables, which is why I think it would be a definite exaggeration to suggest a single organization proved decisive.

They did have some effect, while it's extent remains unclear. They have also admitted that they failed to forecast and missed the mark with more than a few things. As concerns data analysis, electoral behavior is too multifaceted to accurately model.

No one predicted the pro-Russia Koos movement getting so many votes. Did they slip under the radar?

Absolutely. The Estonian media missed it, SALK missed it and sociologists also missed it. But it makes sense as that information did not permeate the information space we all inhabited.

Could we say that SALK, NGO Institute for Societal Studies and the conservative PESA think tank are signs of the Estonian political landscape professionalizing?

I would say again – welcome to the 21st century. That is how you carry out pre-election surveys, which professional parties know to use and value.

What separates influence from manipulation? Has anyone manipulated voters in Estonia?

There are many ways of manipulating voters. It is possible to exaggerate certain fears in society, send certain messages – if you know different voter groups' values, fears and expectations, you can go from there. This has always been a part of politics. There is nothing special about it, not even if we look at democratic politics.

Why are people so easy to manipulate?

That is a question for psychologists. Manipulation can prove very successful in social context as we all know from personal experience.

What about political scientists picking sides? Tõnis Leht makes no secret of the fact he represents liberal views as a member of SALK. Martin Mölder, whose public statements have rather supported the conservative view all along, has now joined the PESA think tank. How compatible is this kind of affiliation with the professional ethics of a political analyst? Is it okay?

That is a complicated question. Many political and social scientists are in the role of public intellectuals or experts, while they are also citizens and therefore entitled to their own political preferences and talking about them.

If we look at the letter PESA members sent to criticize the plan of legalizing same-sex marriage, with Martin Mölder among the undersigned, I would rather defend Martin here as he has clearly explained his position. Reading the article where he talks about it, he accurately points out that there is polarization in Estonia concerning this matter. The critical side has the majority by a hair. His explanations were those of an expert rather than his personal feelings. I believe he carried himself properly.

But the neutrality of sociologists and political scientists in general is a topic where we should ask whether it is even possible. Because we are inevitably operating in a specific space in time and context, have certain values and convictions based on that alone. I would even suggest that full neutrality might even be dangerous or condemnable sometimes.

I wrote an opinion article for Sirp magazine a year ago titled, "War in Ukraine and the Neutrality and Responsibility of Sociologists." In it, I mention an interesting episode. Before the war started, on February 22, Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the so-called people's republics of Donets and Luhansk, and it was clear the ball would be rolling from there. I was watching BBC that evening and was baffled by many British experts, political analysts and journalists trying to be maximally neutral.

Their message was that while there are myriad questions regarding international law and what might follow, the people of Donetsk and Luhansk have suffered so much and now Putin has come to their aid. There was quite a lot of this narrative of Ukraine events constituting a civil war in Western scientific literature and political science circles. This neutral civil war narrative was adopted, even though we know who supplied it.

I believe and hope that the people who appeared on the BBC that evening have dropped this variety of neutrality because it tramples underfoot other values we hold dear.

Perhaps we should differentiate between our own environment and what is happening outside – it is one thing to comment on developments in another country as an expert, while it is another to shape values in your own.

It was not my message that sociologists should not strive for neutrality. They must try to be as neutral and balanced as possible.

At the same time, if they find as citizens that certain developments clash with their values and convictions, I see no reason for them not to get involved. Of course, they must realize there are limits and being very ideologically inclined can impact one's credibility as an expert.

And what they definitely mustn't do, and I sincerely hope sociologists don't, is allow their ideological inclination to be transferred into their professional activity. For example, agitate students to back a certain worldview when teaching, or attempt to look at data or write about phenomena from a biased point of view. Neutrality must be maintained as much as possible in professional political science.

Has anyone been biased in their professional activity in Estonia?

I have not come across heavily biased social and political scientific works or articles in professional collections, perhaps only regarding some topics, such as national policy or interpretations of the Bronze Night. But I don't feel like my professional pain threshold has been broken. There has been practically none or very little of it.

Do you make sure to hide your personal preferences in your professional statements?

Yes, I try to monitor it as much as I can and be neutral and balanced as far as possible. But we still have our own understanding and interpretations of the world as experts, so absolute neutrality is impossible also for me.

Do you vote?


I will not ask who you voted for, of course, but based on what do you make your decisions? It's not election promises I take it.

I generally follow my view of the world. Single election promises have done little to sway my vote.

Tõnis Saarts. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Voters have always been drawn to new things – new products have been marketed in time for elections that sometimes mature into new political parties. But their shelf life is often quite short – they make a splash when they arrive, while they also tend to run out of steam relatively soon.

Why is it that voters keep falling in that trap, believing that someone will play politics differently? Only a relatively small part of society is actively involved in politics, and they move from one party to the next. It's a little like that Krylov fable – that you can seat the people every which way you like, the music will still be the same.

Yes, but people believe very different things in general. The advertising industry thrives based on that fact. I don't think the appearance of new parties should always be seen as a negative development. An extremely static political landscape, where parties' ratings only change by a few points from one election to the next... and we had that in some European democracies in the 1950s and 60s.

The emergence of new parties is a sign of social renewal, new topics and conflicts, which established parties often struggle to represent.

Old parties suffer from path dependence – if you have been moving in a certain ideological direction using certain messages, both your voters and members get used to it, and it can be quite difficult to introduce something that is radically new. We know that to be the case with mainstream Estonian parties that can be pretty old.

New parties open the door to new topics and approaches. Of course, some of them are protest parties. There is always a measure of disappointment or protest in society, growing at certain times and calming down at others. Just as there will always be those who trust parties that are critical of the elite and politicians and vote for them.

Protest parties often have a populist inclination. In political science, populism is not understood as doling out expensive and possibly short-sighted but popular promises. For us, populism is a concept according to which there are two groups in society: a deceitful and corrupt elite and the virtuous common people.

Salt of the earth.

Precisely. Now, this deceitful and rotten elite has robbed the people of the power and populist politicians and parties intend to give it back. The term thin ideology is used for such ideas. But if we think about what happens when a populist party comes to power and stays there for a while, who is the elite and who the people becomes muddled, as well as how to keep the pot boiling... It is likely a new populist force will soon emerge.

Why are they so short-lived? Why do people become disillusioned so quickly?

Some new parties succeed, while others don't. There are different factors at play. My colleagues from the University of Birmingham have studied this phenomenon in new Central and Eastern European democracies. They have highlighted three important factors to make new political forces stick.

1) Leaders may play an important role when it comes to mobilizing and keeping voters. A charismatic leader can hold voter groups and members together.

2) A new party needs to attach itself to important social topics, splits or conflict axes.

3) One aspect that is crucial but often underestimated is party organization. We have seen this in Estonia – all new parties that have managed to survive have contributed heavily to developing their organization.

Local elections are especially important in Estonia. We all know that if you don't have local people, you just won't win any seats in councils. And if you fail at the locals in Estonia, you usually have no business in the next Riigikogu either. Let us recall the fate of the Free Party or the Greens dropping out of the parliament in 2011 – neither party took efforts to develop a [countrywide] organization seriously. Eesti 200 did.

And so did EKRE, having now become rather big.

EKRE took it especially seriously, and they had a bit of an advantage going in. (EKRE was largely created based on the former People's Union party – ed.)

While Isamaa has swallowed Res Publica.

The fate of Res Publica is what it is.

However, we can probably consider it a benefit that we don't have a two-party system like in the USA. While we always need coalition governments, it also means that we have more choice than just the Republicans or the Democrats.

Yet, it seems that polarization is becoming stronger along the conservative-liberal axis, which is reflected in people's choices at elections.

These blocks and growing polarization are clear in Estonian society. It goes beyond the political and media levels and permeates people's everyday lives. It seems that the conservative-liberal conflict axis is becoming increasingly relevant and polarization is deepening.

What was the trigger? Where did it start?

The roots of the Western value conflicts largely go back to the 1960s that saw the start of rapid social change. Society became a little freer, more liberal. The 1970s brought the women's movement, feminism, student movements, while this strong wave of liberalism sparked a reaction from the conservative wing that found that permissibility had decidedly gone too far. New topics, such as immigration, have been added later.

So the axis or sphere of culture war has been expanding, and it seems the liberal-conservative conflict (it also has alternative descriptions) has indeed become the main dividing line in party politics.

The core conflict of the 20th century was the class struggle – workers versus the middle class or laborers versus capitalists. Especially during the first half of the century. Now it seems that the liberal-conservative conflict or split will be decisive at least during the first half-century.

Things started moving later in Estonia because other events took center stage in the 60s and 70s. Developments in the West did not get here until the 1990s, while what followed was a massive wave of liberation, permissibility and a crazy decade in hindsight. It seems we have caught up with the West now.

Yes, Estonia has become Westernized in that sense. When I mentioned the culture conflict or culture wars and the liberal-conservative axis to my students 10-15 years ago, it was not something they were very interested in. There were completely different conflicts and mobilizing topics in Estonia at the time.

An important breakthrough happened in 2014 with the passing of the Registered Partnership Act. That brought the culture wars to Estonia in a sense. They were not as prominent before.

There may be different attitudes in society, while it also takes a political force capable of politicizing certain topics, making them important, mobilizing voters and making things visible.

2014 was the moment when the more conservative part of society felt things had gone too far. They may have been concerned before, while this felt like a step too far and one that's cause for mobilization. And Estonia happened to have a very crafty politician and party at that time, capable of mobilizing this group of voters. I am talking of EKRE but not just them.

Could we describe that mobilization also as disruption, taking advantage of polarization?

If you want to make your mark as a political newcomer, you must demonstrate that the things you stand for matter. And those topics can be disruptive.

But, like I said, culture wars had been around in the West for some time, meaning that we haven't really invented anything new in Estonia. Something that had been hidden or remained latent suddenly exploded in 2014, and there was a political entrepreneur, especially in EKRE and the Helme family, capable of taking advantage. Perhaps the situation would have been different had they not been around.

But how to avoid polarization and social rifts? Should certain topics be forever taboo? Yet, they tend to crop up because someone is hurting.

I think that it is impossible to avoid such disruption and polarization, or perhaps just the latter in its more extreme forms – we should be careful in those terms as it may pose a threat to democracy. But societies having conflicts and rifts is an entirely normal part of democratic politics.

Does that mean that a so-called seamless society is impossible?

But would we even want one? If we think about why we have democracy, different parties and all the rest. I mean if we all agreed on everything like in North Korea...

It is the point of democracy to treat with divisive topics, politicize them, mobilize voters and give people the chance to participate. If politics becomes something where nothing is at stake, where we only debate whether to hike or slash tax rates by 0.5 points, that would be the end of democracy because no one would care anymore.

Differences work to mobilize voters. I even find it a threat to democratic politics when there are no rifts and consensus is sought in every single thing. I think that trying to suppress or smooth out differences is not a sustainable strategy in democratic politics.

But haven't we now arrived at the other end of the spectrum where everyone is maximally riled up? People are hurt and defensive, with no constructive path forward to be seen. How to reconcile matters and be able to have a conversation again?

That is where we need to tell the difference between two kinds of polarization and conflict. The first is that society has conflicts, splits, different convictions, and different parties representing different camps – all that is very natural in democratic politics.

We get a problem when those conflicts become insurmountable – there is polarization, people being split into two camps where the potential for compromise starts disappearing. Common ground is no longer found. Such a situation poses a threat to democracy. Under normal circumstances, politicians see the other side as a legitimate opposition – everyone knows we're a part of a democratic game, they are the opposition, we are the coalition, and while their positions differ, both sides accept the others' right to life and to play the game.

What tends to happen in highly polarized societies is that politicians start seeing one another as enemies, as opposed to adversaries. And what do you do with enemies? You suppress and oust them. You are left with zero-sum games of winner takes all. That if I win, the one who lost to me must get nothing.

And this becomes a very serious threat to democracy. Ways to achieve certain compromises are key but, as previously mentioned, democratic politics that is all compromise and no conflict is also unsustainable. Therefore, we need to find balance, while polarization where the other side is seen as the enemy – and I can already see such tendencies in Estonia – poses a realistic threat to democracy.

Looking at the crumbling of democracy in Hungary and Poland, and you mentioned a two-party system before, it started with polarization that continued to deepen. Centrist forces between two major players became weaker and weaker and the result was a virtual two-party system where one side eventually achieved a parliamentary majority and started imposing its will. There were claims that Western liberal democracy and its institutions are not the best path. And this has brought Hungary and Poland, to a lesser extent, to where they are today.

Does anyone hold the key to turning back from this dangerous threshold?

It is difficult and depends largely on politicians. How far they're willing to go and whether they perceive a danger causing them to pull back. From there, it also depends on context.

The context right now is that the government is tying tax bills to votes of confidence in the cabinet to end filibustering for a situation where partners have indeed turned into enemies.

Absolutely. And I am very concerned by the developments. It is not just about the coalition's behavior today. The opposing side resorting to the same method in the future and it all being amplified in a spiral, getting worse.

I would say that Estonia's blessing is that we cannot see a two-party system developing in the near future where one of the major parties driving the values conflict today – Reform and EKRE – could get the majority. But were it to happen, I believe Estonian democracy would be in jeopardy like in Hungary and Poland, whereas the precondition of polarization has been met.

It is also dangerous because we are next to Russia that cannot wait for us to fall out among ourselves.

I believe that our geopolitical location or situation makes Estonia very different from Hungary. Our location has a certain disciplinary effect, which can likely ward off illiberal democracy a la Hungary being the order of the day here.

So, the smart thing to do would be to give in? We'll just have to hope either of the two sides will wise up?

Yes, we'll have to hope. But we also know, talking about European politics, that the class conflict in the first half of the 20th century became very sharp, and it were only the major disasters of the previous century – WWI especially but also WWII – that made the sides realize that a compromise was in order.

Those compromises gave rise to the modern welfare state, social Europe. Both workers' and middle class parties realized that pushing forward and only preaching one's own truth would rather split society and could end up in a revolution.

Let us hope this is not in store for Estonia.

Let us hope indeed.

Tõnis Saarts. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR


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