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Opinion digest: Party politics increasingly unpopular at local level

Mayor of Viljandi Ando Kiviberg.
Mayor of Viljandi Ando Kiviberg. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

In an opinion piece for daily Postimees, Viljandi mayor Ando Kiviberg (IRL) explained why he believes in local election coalitions rather than in party lists.

If party politics could be considered respectable, necessary, and actually of value, then the Estonian parties’ lists for the local elections would likely be overflowing with the names of people who wanted to go into local politics, Kiviberg wrote in his piece.

But that wasn’t the case. Mud-slinging and all sorts of trickery were part of the public competition in politics, and leading up to elections this meant hearing the most amazing things from politicians.

Likely referring to Reform Party MP Eerik-Niiles Kross, Kiviberg pointed out how MPs could suddenly be spotted running back home to their constituencies if something was to be gained from it—like it happened when Tallinn was about to cut down a willow tree that was in the way of a new traffic intersection. MPs were suddenly defending trees, and even calling for state-level committees to deal with the matter.

In another party, a member of the European Parliament had arranged for an internal war, promising to enter the election campaign with a list of her own, negotiating changes to the party’s election platform, only to then change her mind entirely after her colleague and prime minister promised to include—what, exactly?

Kiviberg sees it as symptomatic that it should be MPs and top party politicians that set the mood for the election campaign that will affect the local and not the national level. The local governments were nothing more than vassals of the state, and this fact was an open secret, Kiviberg wrote. Though the local councils were elected by the locals, their financial means were subject to the bureaucratic limits imposed by the national government.

The budgets of the areas outside Tallinn currently depended on the support and funds of the central government. They were at the mercy of the people running the country.

This dependency had been increased even more when in the 2008-2010 crisis the government had temporarily introduced additional limits to the share the local councils received of local residents’ income tax. Nobody had complained, people got used to the situation—and the temporary measure had become permanent.

Local businessmen were probably unaware that not a single cent out of the taxes they paid on dividends was going to the local government. If they believed that their dividend taxes would contribute to local development, they were wrong.

There was a simple rule, namely that of all income tax paid, 11.6 percent would go to the local level. But despite the 20-percent tax on dividends came from individuals’ personal income, none of this money went to the local councils.

These were just two of the issues the local level was struggling with. For some reason, there was no sign of any of the Riigikogu’s members coming up with solutions how local life could be arranged better, and developed further. There was no sign of anyone talking about balanced development across the country by strengthening local administration.

The current approach taken in the implementation of the Administrative Reform Act was a half-baked solution as well, as it didn’t address the issue of the lacking independence of local councils in budget matters. Apart from municipal mergers with some sort of effectivity indicator added, nothing would change.

Increasing the local councils’ independence hadn’t been the aim of the reform, neither under the previous government nor under the current one, and the same centralized approach now dominated in the political parties as well. Decisions about local life were increasingly made in Tallinn, Kiviberg wrote.

Himself a member of the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), Kiviberg described how his party had gone about putting together its list in the city of Viljandi for the upcoming local elections.

On Apr. 6, the local section of IRL had unanimously decided to form an election coalition with the local Free Party. A participant in that meeting had been Helir-Valdor Seeder, who shortly after was elected party chairman.

Seeder had clearly been in favor of the decision to work with the Free Party. But then, on May 21, the local section broke off the agreement with the Free Party and instead decided to go with a party list.

The idea to break off the agreement had come from the party’s Tallinn headquarters, and the decision reversed following pressure from the same, Kiviberg said.

Towards the end of May there had then been the clear demand that Kiviberg himself run on IRL’s own list. The party wanted to see him as its front runner in Viljandi and candidate for mayor, and expected suggestions from him how to resolve the situation the sudden change of course had created.

As Kiviberg described in his piece, he sent in a detailed proposal, just as he had been asked to. IRL rejected his proposal, while the public in Viljandi saw the switch as an expression of Kiviberg’s supposed higher ambitions, and as evidence that he was trying to get the highest possible place on the party’s list in the next national elections, however unrealistic that idea was.

While Kiviberg is now faced with this double problem in Viljandi, there are difficult times ahead for IRL in Viljandi County as well as elsewhere in the country. As Kiviberg says, he now sees his party differently, and he is convinced that local life should be defined by the locals, and even more so that local initiatives are more important than party politics.

Click here to be taken to the original opinion piece (link in Estonian).

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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