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Tõnis Saarts: On the 'there are no alternatives' cast of mind in Estonian politics

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

If there is something that can sum up the year 2023 in Estonian politics, it is the proliferation of the "we are the only alternative" mentality and the problems this causes, Tõnis Saarts writes.

All the main keywords of the outgoing year in politics – elections, obstruction in the Riigikogu and the so-called eastern transports scandal – can be directly or indirectly associated with the "there is no alternative to us" mindset.

It all started with the last elections the results of which have been wittily summed up as: "We ended up with a party which will not end up in the opposition over the next four years and another which has no business in the government."

The result is self-actualization that pays no heed to anyone else on the one hand and destructive opposition to everything and everyone on the other. Whereas both sides are convinced they are the only ones with the "sacred" right of ruling over Estonia as they see fit.

The "there is no alternative to us" mentality is constricting democracy as the latter is about looking for and finding compromises during critical moments as opposed to a zero sum game.

Yet, the cast of mind is by no means a stranger to democracy. It was perhaps British PM Margaret Thatcher who put it most succinctly in repeating: "There is no alternative." The phrase, which became known as TINA, suggested that there were no alternatives to market liberalism, privatization, low taxes and a minimal state concept at the time, and that neoliberal economic recipes were applicable everywhere, from Chile to China and Eastern Europe to South Africa. Increasingly few people agree these days.

The "there is no alternative to us" frame of mind creates three main problems, which have also come to haunt Estonian politics as of late.

First, the mentality fosters mental laziness and discourages taking the risk of forward-looking innovation. With no one breathing down your neck, you always feel there is plenty of time.

While the Reform Party has been criticized for its tax policy, we might ask how radical and extensive have their steps really been?

Generally speaking, Estonia has a choice between staying its course of low taxes for which it would need to dial back public services and benefits, or thoroughly changing its tax structure in an attempt to try and retain the recent level of public amenities. The ruling party, for which neither option is ideologically and strategically convenient, is trying to postpone making the decision for as long as possible. This is made possible by the virtual lack of alternatives to the ruling coalition (or at least Reform at its head – ed.), allowing them to offer up half-baked solutions which give society no clues as to where the pendant is leaning.

The second effect of the "there is no alternative" situation is lack of accountability and the ignoring of public expectations. The [prime minister's] eastern transports scandal serves as a classic example.

Had there been a realistic coalition alternative, Kallas' resignation would have been a matter of days. Eesti 200 and SDE would have simply told Reform that it is them or Kallas. However, as things are, the Reform Party can just continue to ignore the fact that 60-70 percent of people want to see the PM resign months after the scandal. It is hoped that the voter will eventually forget about it and that there will be plenty of time for an elegant change of leadership once things come to that.

Thirdly, the "there is no alternative to us" mentality almost always causes the opposing camp to become radicalized. Opposition parties and their backers simply cannot put up with a ruling party's impunity syndrome for long. Relentless obstruction tactics in the Riigikogu have been one manifestation.

While the attitude of "there is no alternative to us" undoubtedly rubs many people the wrong way, looking at election results, we are left to conclude that the Estonian voter loves politicians and parties who embody this philosophy. Edgar Savisaar, Andrus Ansip and even Mart Laar have been true-blue carriers of the "there are no alternatives to us" mentality while also being oh-so popular.

The Conservative People's Party (EKRE), which has attracted the most supporters over the past decade, is an admirer of Hungary's illiberal democracy in which democracy largely stands for the majority's unlimited power where alternative positions are not left much room.

Therefore, the "there is no alternative to us" way of thinking is something that seems to be a part of political culture in Estonia, whether we like it or not. We need to learn to live with it, even if the mindset will likely be taken to its extremes in the coming years.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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