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Caution keeping expats from getting involved, says Joao Rei

Joao Rei has lived in Tallinn since 2006.
Joao Rei has lived in Tallinn since 2006. Source: (Private collection)

After last year’s change of government and major shifts in the Center Party, and after a year and a half of administrative reform, the upcoming local elections are unpredictable—and even more difficult for all those whose main language is English. Portuguese expat and Tallinner, Joao Rei, decided to do something about it and to arrange a debate.

You've lived in Estonia for soon 11 years. Have you voted in a local or EU parliament election before?

Yes, ever since I moved to Estonia, I've made it a point to vote in any election that I’m allowed to. So I’ve voted in the European Parliament as well as local elections before, for varying parties.

Maybe at first it was a bit of a fascination with the online voting system.
In the EU elections I was able to pick between voting for an Estonian representative, or for a Portuguese one. I picked to vote in Estonia because it was much easier.

There are virtually thousands of EU expatriates in Tallinn, but only few of them take an active interest in Estonian politics. How much do you follow it?

I've always been conscious of politics, if not active. So I try to keep up with what is happening in politics worldwide, and in Estonia in particular. I think that most foreigners here don’t take an active role because of the language barrier, or simply because we see ourselves as visitors. I think it’s caution that keeps expats from getting involved.

What gave you the idea to arrange a debate?

A local paper was looking for expats to comment on the local elections. So while I was giving them an interview, it occurred to me that I had stuff to say about local issues and the elections. I wrote an article ages ago about how to improve Tallinn to make it more appealing to foreigners, and that article got some attention, positive as well as negative.

I think it struck a chord with people. I started thinking about writing a simple guide to the elections for local expats, and after publishing that guide as well as my personal opinion of the parties, I began contacting some of the candidates to help me understand what they stand for.

And talking to some of them, I thought of putting together a small debate with some of the candidates to talk about issues that might be relevant to the expat community, which is already quite sizeable at least in Tallinn. But I my main motivation was that for the first time I’m actually struggling to figure out who to vote for, and I thought that there must be others as well.

Was it difficult to find a partner to arrange it?

Not at all. Estonia is a small country, everyone knows everyone. After I floated the idea with some of the candidates, I turned to Silver Tambur of Estonian World to see if this could actually happen. We had a quick call and started talking about who to invite. And with his help we managed to get all the right people and a venue as well.

You’re moderating the debate. How are you preparing for it?

Reading all of the parties’ campaign platforms, news articles, checking their background a bit. And if I have time I’ll watch Best of Enemies again. (laughs)

What do you personally think are the most important issues in this year's elections?

I think Estonia is doing a fantastic job becoming an international poster child for a modern and digitally advanced country. But that vision at times seems at odds with some parts of the country. Tallinn should be at the forefront of that vision, but it is following it rather than taking the lead. I’m interested to see what the different parties and candidates are making of this vision. Do they support a modern, open, and inclusive city?

Another important issue is the city budget and where that money goes. 50 percent of Estonia’s gross domestic product is generated in Tallinn. Are we spending money on the right things? Do the parties differ in their priorities for the city?

Then there are questions that I think are also relevant to expats, particularly to those with families, like myself. Matters like kindergarten spots, the quality of education. Accessibility, and making sure everyone feels like they’re able walk, use their bikes, work, and use the city’s services in a way that makes them feel at home.

Thank you for the interview.

Joao Rei is a marketing and communications professional. Rei moved here from Portugal in 2006, he lives and works in Tallinn. He is married and has two children. As one of Tallinn’s more outspoken expatriates, he writes about life in Estonia from time to time.

There are two debates taking place in English on Oct. 9 and Oct. 10. Advance voting begins tomorrow Thursday, Oct. 15 is election day. See below for more on the 2017 local elections.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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