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Opinion digest: This year’s elections unlikely to turn out as expected

Former ambassador Jaak Jõerüüt.
Former ambassador Jaak Jõerüüt. Source: Ülo Josing/ERR

Writer, politician, and former diplomat Jaak Jõerüüt wrote in an opinion piece in daily Postimees published on Wednesday that the parties paid too much attention to ratings and polls, and didn’t take into account who their potential voters really are.

Jõerüüt wrote that though a fresh poll showed that the Center Party’s support in Tallinn had shrunk a little, the upcoming local elections would most likely see a single party come to power again. Leading up to the election, polls didn’t really say all there was to say, as paying attention to the most obvious signs was very telling as well.

A bit like fishing: one could take external factors into account, and make a prediction what would happen. There were just three options: the fish bite, the fish don’t bite, or the result was mixed.

Naturally, the equipment to catch the fish with, that part needed to be in order.

As far as the capital was concerned, the situation was only too familiar, with certain groups of voters supporting certain parties in certain areas of the city. But there were two factors that couldn’t as easily be measured. One was that the weather, i.e. the response of voters, could be interpreted differently, and the parties indeed looked at it in no single way. The other was that the equipment the parties had might turn out to be the wrong choice for the occasion.

Jõerüüt quoted another example from fishing. Years ago, he had had a bamboo stick as a fishing rod that the fish simply seemed to be scared of, not even coming close enough to get a better look at the bait. But if he showed up at the same place with another stick, the fish would bite, he wrote.

Part of the phenomenon of badly chosen equipment was about the bait as well, he went on. In the case of Tallinn, hardly a party understood its target group. This was visible elsewhere in the country as well. The parties were used to looking to each other a lot more than they were used to looking to their voters. The mistake hidden here was that the parties were ignoring changes taking place within their own voter groups: they refused to move with the times.

An example was the obvious topic of nationalism, discussed quite differently now than it was 25 years ago. No fewer than four parties were struggling with the topic on the right side of the political spectrum, and all of them were making childish mistakes. There was no sign of care and instinct, they took the polls as the be-all and end-all of their political moves.

Though nationalism was fashionable, it wasn’t the strict or the theoretical variety that appealed to the people. Its current form did not have too many similarities with the nationalism displayed in Estonia’s neighboring countries. While it could be recognized as entirely obvious that even the nationalism of different generations of Estonians could differ, he was left at times with the impression that both the political left and the right were stuck in a particular interpretation of it, while the alternative, the Estonian Greens, were simple contributors that plainly were against everything, Jõerüüt wrote.

He also pointed out that never before among his acquaintances had he heard so many say that they were helpless when it came to choosing who to vote for. And added a rhetorical question: Do any of the parties know how to get the vote of a thirty to forty-year-old IT specialist with a degree who is successful, loves to travel, is pro EU, an economic liberal, but also a fanatic environmentalist, great family person, married, with three or four children, and still a solid nationalist?

According to Jõerüüt, it is always easy to say that the lazy voter has lost their bearings, and that it is really their fault. Reality though was different, too many parties didn’t know their potential voters, he wrote.

Though polls were just as much a part of present-day civilization as rock concerts and package holidays, one needed to consume them with caution. The two main reasons for this were that on one hand, reality had just recently shown how far off the mark they could be; and on the other, a small mistake or a flawed methodology would sometimes suffice to completely distort the analysis of what respondents actually answered. The U.S. presidential elections, the Brexit referendum, and the current state of the French presidential elections were a good hint, Jõerüüt pointed out.

The influence of different world views mattered as well. Naturally it was nice to have principles, e.g. as in saying “Never kill, never lie, never steal”. But in our time the temptation was often great to oversimplify things, and this was the point at which a simple or cryptic world view expressed by certain people could get them very far, placed in high office even by people whose education should actually have had them know better.

The results of this could be dramatic, as such a candidate could always raise that shield of their world view to deflect uncomfortable questions. If that topic alone dominated, the rest could too easily be forgotten, and would fall behind.

Beyond all of these aspects, the parties also have a problem as they keep forgetting to take Estonia’s changing demographic situation into account. Not even in terms of ethnic groups, but in terms of the age groups in society.

Thinking about the coming changes, last but not least because of the Administrative Reform Act, the redrawing of electoral districts, and the changed number of seats on local councils for ever larger geographical areas, to expect that one and one make two might be expecting the wrong thing this year, Jõerüüt wrote. The map was being redrawn, and a piece of history lost. How the Estonian people would deal with the situation only time would tell.

Read the original opinion piece in Estonian on the website of Postimees.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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