Tõnis Saarts: Overrated party leaders

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

The role of party chairmen is somewhat overestimated in Estonia, political scientist Tõnis Saarts finds. While important, the party as an institutional whole is far more crucial than its current leaders.

Looking at the media, one might easily get the impression that party leaders, such as Kaja Kallas, Jüri Ratas, Martin Helme and others, are the driving force behind Estonian politics. The survival and success at elections of parties and every other aspect of political life in Estonia seems to depend on party chairmen.

This notion of the considerable influence of party leaders has only deepened in recent years, following several recent (Isamaa and SDE) or upcoming (Center Party) changes in leadership. Looming changes are also suggested in the case of other parties, with [Reform leader] Kaja Kallas rumored to be on her way to European structures and Kristina Kallas to reclaiming her throne from Lauri Hussar over at Eesti 200.

But modern political science and keeping a closer eye on Estonian politics over a longer period of time do not confirm this rumored omnipotence of party heads. Rather, the political scientific conclusion is that while party leaders have a role to play in how their organization performs, it is far more limited than people might think. In more mature and settled democracies, which Estonia has now become, the survival of parties depends on their organizational capacity and ability to associate themselves with core conflicts in society much more than it does on the personal characteristics and charisma of their leaders.

I am far from claiming that the role of party leaders is inconsequential. But while party heads have important functions, their ability is often just one factor among many others.

We saw it years ago in the Center Party, which was considered an extremely leader-centered political party at the time. It was believed that replacing long-time party head Edgar Savisaar with Jüri Ratas would cost Center its influence and a considerable part of voters. But this did not happen. Rather, the fact that the party has lost Russian-speaking voters is down to several different factors as opposed to just Jüri Ratas' leadership abilities. The Center Party, courtesy of its robust party organization, survived the exit of its founder and capable leader and remains one of the largest parties in Estonia.

This shows that our parties have grown up and no longer depend just on their leaders and the latter's charisma. Leaders and their abilities are crucial in young democracies where parties are newly founded, lack a fixed ideology and sport weak or nonexistent organizations. This was Estonia in the 1990s and early 2000s where party leaders' ability or ineptitude governed much more than it does today.

This means that Center, Reform or Eesti 200 getting new leaders at the next elections would very likely not bring drastic changes to Estonian politics. If party elites understand that the importance of unity and the party trademark far outweigh the benefits of pulling the party in opposite directions based on personal animosity, all three will survive changes in leadership quite painlessly. The situation is the most uncertain for Eesti 200 as the party faces the risk of "loss of novelty" faced by all new political forces rather than anything to do with leaders.

There are different types of leaders. Some are very popular among the party's constituents while still sporting influence and authority in the party. Andrus Ansip, Edgar Savisaar and (currently) Kaja Kallas are examples of influential or personalized, so to speak, leaders. Some party heads are gray eminences. They are less than brilliant public speakers and do not perform as well at elections but maintain an iron grip on the party and command much respect in-house. Former Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder was one such example. The third type is leaders who are popular and prominent publicly but less adept at putting their foot down inside the party. A classic example of such a relatively uninfluential people's person was former Res Publica head Juhan Parts.

The gallery of Estonian party leaders is diverse, having included personalized leaders, gray eminences and non-influential men and women of the people over the 20-30-year history of political parties here. But the parties are still around, and even if we will see most party leaders replaced in a relatively short period in the near future, it is doubtful this will lead to something completely unexpected or epochal. It is a sign of more mature democracies and party systems – while the role of leaders is important, much more depends on parties as institutions.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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