Celebrity candidates: Headed for political fame—or notoriety

From Olympic champion to Reform Party figurehead: cross-country skier Kristina Šmigun-Vähi.
From Olympic champion to Reform Party figurehead: cross-country skier Kristina Šmigun-Vähi. Source: Postimees/Scanpix

Politics can get drab, even depressing. So you would think that new drive and new faces are always welcome. But when Olympic champions and famous actors sign up and get catapulted to the top of parties' lists, it gets hard to ignore the political opportunism, ERR's Toomas Sildam writes.

And there they are, like flag bearers at an Olympic ceremony or singers introduced at the Eurovision Song Contest. Only that they carry the flags of our parties: it's the celebrity candidates, famous athletes and popular culture figures.

Every vote counts, and might bring victory. The stakes are high, it's about who will be in government and who in opposition, or even who will make the Riigikogu and who will be left out, doomed to oblivion. That is why the headquarters of Estonia's parties are on the hunt for popular characters who don't need to be introduced, because Estonia knows who they are anyway.

Signing up celebrities means letting down voters as well as parties

You could ask, what is so bad about athletes, actors or musicians entering politics? We wouldn't want politics to be a members-only guild or some sort of private club, would we. And neither do we want politics to be drab and boring. We want to see something going on, some colour. We want politics to pay attention, and to have a broad view of the world, we want successful people from different walks of life.

Of course we do, but it's hard to ignore the odour of political opportunism when an Olympic champion or a famous actor decide to join a party and immediately end up at the top of its list of candidates.

Were it musician Siiri Sisask, that would be one thing. She would be credible, because she has spent years helping families and children, and she would likely go on doing the same in parliament as well. Also credible is actor Tõnis Oja, who before last year's local polls said that he is running because he doesn't want either side's extremists to win. That gives the voter an idea of his world view.

Or if a party puts up a candidate who has a proven record in local government, and for whom parliament is the next logical step. Or if it seems natural where a recent political studies graduate virtually radiates idealism, and running for parliament seems to be the evident choice of action for them as well as their party.

But in plenty of cases, the impression is rather that of the voter being led up the garden path. The billboard with the carefully airbrushed celebrity quickly becomes more important than any sort of substance they may or may not have.

We don't know a thing about the political views of these people. And how could we? All the parties are offering us is a fancy wrapper, nothing more.

Over the last three decades, we have seen examples where celebrity candidates eventually turned into influential politicians. But they are not the rule, and outweighed by those who went on to spend a few quiet years in parliament, their former glamour slowly fading away.

This is letting down the parties themselves, actually. Dozens and dozens of people work hard between elections, often without compensation, to make a party last, make it do something, and make the people notice as well. A place on the party list to them is an important sign of recognition, and evidence that the party is aware of their contribution.

Letting a celebrity cut corners and promoting them to the top of the list straight away has a demoralising effect on the rest of the party, and is at least rude, if not worse.

Opposition instead of government limelight

One important question celebrity candidates should ask themselves is whether they are ready to spend the next four years in opposition, where little to nothing may depend on them.

At this point it is impossible to predict what the outcome of the general election next year will be. Will the next government be led by the Reform Party or the Centre Party? Who else will be part of the coalition? There is no way to tell, at this point any hope of any of the smaller parties to become a coalition partner is no more than a dream.

All this means that a well-known personality may find themselves relegated to the opposition—which would be disappointing.

The story of Free Party MP Krista Aru may serve as a warning. Aru, a former director of the Estonian National Museum and herself a celebrity candidate in the last general election, for which the Free Party was founded, recently told the story on social media how she bumped into a disillusioned voter in Tartu, who accused her of being lazy and not having done enough.

According to Aru, the voter wasn't interested in the slightest in her explanations about debates in the Riigikogu, bills she initiated, or other parliamentary work.

Working as an MP can be a thankless job. Celebrity candidates—and others!—would do well to keep that fact in mind.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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