Whilst most of the attention on Estonian politics currently revolves around the Riigikogu and the government in the run up to the March general election, this also spills over into local politics, not least in the Tallinn City Government. Most of the opposition to the majority party there, the Centre Party, more specifically council chair Mihhail Kõlvart, revolves around his recent suggestion of reducing the number of council seats - which opponents say will have the effect of consolidating Centre's control over the city.
Mr Kõlvart has proposed a reduction in council members, from 79 to 63. Whilst this might on the surface look like a reining-in of bureaucracy, opposition parties might have the most to lose in a council which has long been Centre's domain.
City council opposition responses:
Reform Party council leader Kristen Michal said that Reform is ready to discuss the reduction of councillors, provided that Centre is equally ready to discuss the Reform Party's larger plan for urban governance.
''It would be simple if all Tallinn's management problems could be solved by cutting 14 council members,'' said Mr Michal.
''However, if could solve the current systemic problem in Tallinn, namely that Centre members do not control taxpayers' money and property, then the number of councillors would be reduced further. But if there were just two members per city district, would all the problems be resolved?'' said Mr Michel, in ironic form.
''Given the need for reform that Tallinn city government management has been crying out for years, the issue of 14 council members is but a small detail,'' he continued.
Chair of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) Urmas Reitelann, in colourful terms, also rejected Mr Kõlvart's proposal.
"As in the case of the Riigikogu, the quality of the decisions is important and here I cannot see how a smaller council would work better in the committees and smarter decisions in the town hall,'' said Mr Reitelann.
''So little taxpayer's money goes towards council members' pay that, compared with what is spent on parasites in the food chain of the Centre Party, there are no real savings to be made,'' he went on.
Any reduction thus would need to be matched with a limit on the size of political groups, in order to circumvent complete Centre domination of the city council, he said.
The Social Democratic Party (SDE) is similarly strongly opposed to the Kõlvart initiative, using arguments of political scientist Rein Taagapera to make its point.
"Mikhail Kõlvart should definitely take on board the arguments Rein Taagepera, who states that with around 450,000 residents in Tallinn, the optimum number of council members would be 77,'' said SDE party chair at the city council Maris Sild.
''It would be a pity if the number of inhabitants of his party fell to about 330,000 [ie. the putative ideal population of a Tallinn which had Mr Kõlvart's proposed number of 63 seats, presmuably all of them Centre supporters-ed.],'' she went on.
Ms Sild also pointed out that Mr Kõlvart, in making comparisons with the capital cities of Estonia's neighbours, failed to take into account the city's idiosyncracies, such as distinct neighbourhood identities.
''Under Centre's leadership, power has drained away from the city districts over the years [Tallinn also has district councils-ed.] . In essence, any decision-making power and the quorum requirement have been taken away. There are neighborhoods where the Centre Party has no exclusive power, and the reasons can be seen here. In essence, the city is controlled by the votes of Lasnamäe, Mustamäe and Haabersti, " Ms Sild continued, referring to the most populous residential districts of the city, traditional Centre Party strongholds.
Riina Solman, Chair of the Pro Patria city council bloc, said Mr Kõlvart was aiming at exclusive power for the Centre Party in Tallinn.
Tallinn is in a unique position compared with other municipalities,'' she said.
''Mikhail Kõlvart actually wants to create a situation where Centre can gain sole power in Tallinn without an absolute majority of votes. This is the main thrust of his proposal, and it is utterly unfair.
''We want to have greater weight in the city districts in decision-making in Tallinn and we plan to raise the issue of reforming the capital's governance in the new Riigikogu.
Tallinn is different from other municipalities in terms of size, importance and work organisation, and the overlap between city council and parliament, which is why the distinction of Tallinn must be covered by a separate law,'' she continued.
This is apparently not the first time Centre have tried to cut down on city councillor posts – in 2015, then City Council chair Toomas Vitsut proposed reducing the number to 51.
Mr Kõlvart's argument
Mr Kõlvart used the ratio of city inhabitants to council members from several capital cities in the Baltic region to make his point, finding that Tallinn had the most councillors per inhabitant by some margin, at one for every 5,734 as at 1 January 2019.
This is significantly smaller than the number of citizens per councillor in the other cities, which were:
- Helsinki: 7,594
- Stockholm: 9,403
- Vilnius: 10,446
- Riga: 10,666
He also added that the practice of having two chairs in the city council had caused communication problems, something which much of the opposition rejected too.
There are eight city districts in Tallinn, sub-divided into 84 sub-districts.
The next local elections in Tallinn are in 2021. The general election is this March.
Editor: Andrew Whyte