Opinion: Election English debates hardly perfect, but set healthy precedent

OF course debates would be nowhere without an audience. This is is from ERR's all-woman debate on Thursday.
OF course debates would be nowhere without an audience. This is is from ERR's all-woman debate on Thursday. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

This week saw two political debates in English between representatives of all the major political parties, and most of the minor ones. This might set a good precedent for Estonia and provide an example to other European nations, and seems to have gone down well with viewers in the audience and online. There are some caveats and limitations too, however.

The two debates, one on Thursday hosted by national broadcaster ERR, and its English-language portal ERR News, moderated by Aili Vahtla, and the other on Friday, live streamed by ERR but organised by the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), moderated by Andreas Kaju of Meta Advisory, were not the first of their kind, in fact. An English-language debate during the lead-up to the local government elections in October 2017 took place, moderated by expat journalist João Rei, who I believe has another similar debate to moderate a little over a week from now.

A standard practice in Finland, for instance, has been to open up politicians to all European (or certainly EU) languages ahead of the European elections. This is not in the form of a debate, just a short interview in which the candidate speaks in a language of their choice, sometimes with comic results.

Whole spectrum of experience

Politicians are amusing, there is no question about it. Whilst the Roger Stone maxim, ''politics is show business for ugly people'', may not be quite as applicable in Estonia as in the US and elsewhere, a certain amount of theatricality plus unintentional slapstick can make or break an election. Indeed amongst the panellists at the two debates, were an opera director (Neeme Kuningas, Free) a concert and orchestral concert manager (Kadri Tali, Estonia 200), as well as a current government minister (Riina Sikkut, SDE), a former prime minister (Taavi Rõvas, Reform), a former minister (Marina Kaljurand, SDE), an MEP (Yana Toom, Centre) and a local politician (Raimond Kaljulaid, Centre).

Several of the participants were running in their first ever election, and hadn't even appeared in a similar discussion in Estonian, let alone English (for instance Eva-Liisa Luhamets of Isamaa, and Liina Normet of Estonia 200).

So, whilst we were far from ever going down the road of farce, particular props is due to those participants who brought some wit and jibe to proceedings.

The AmCham debate on Friday got candidates from all nine political parties running in all of the 12 electoral districts in Tallinn, ERR News' own debate attracted representatives from five.

ERR seemingly not good enough for smaller parties

It is tempting here to say that parties' interest is only piqued when an audience has to pay to view, at a relatively louche venue, as they did in the case of the AmCham debate at the Tallinn Hilton Park, compared with the more homely environment of a free-entry debate at the public broadcaster. However, that would be unfair, not least to the main parties, who nearly all sent candidates to both debates (Centre, Reform, SDE, Isamaa and Estonia 200).

In fact, it was predominantly the smaller parties who were less cooperative as regards ERR's own debate went. They may use the excuse that they couldn't find an English-speaking candidate in time, but their case then would be undone by the fact they were able to provide someone for the AmCham debate. In any case, five proved a more manageable number and gave the all-woman panel a good degree of participation. The nine in the AmCham lineup was too many.

Three of the AmCham debate candidates were also switched in at the last minute – Marina Kaljurand, Kadri Tali and Riinu Lepa (Richness of Life), for a very pertinent reason, connected with the ERR News debate the preceding day. The issue was one of panel diversity – when it became clear that the original AmCham panel was all-male, a growing chorus (very rightly) of dissent, largely on social media, caused us to re-examine ourselves. By dint of some very hard work at the 11th hour, and the willingness of most of the major parties to provide people (or have others step down), we were able not only to organise an all-woman debate, most likely the first of its kind (in English) here in Estonia, but the AmCham debate provided more gender balance too.

Regardless of the parties' motives, priorities and so on, sending candidates was obviously much appreciated by the organisers of both debates.

Panellists put many native English speakers to shame

So much for acknowledgements. There were also plenty of action points, so to speak.

First, in the strictest sense, these events were not debates. They were panel discussions with interactions mostly between moderator and panel, but also between panellists. A scholarly debate, for instance, should have timed opening remarks, rebuttals, questions and answers, closing remarks etc., with equal weight given to both sides. Since we had multiple participants, such things were out of the window in any case, but what we were left with could be a bit lop-sided and uneven at times.

But debates is what we call them. Looking across the Atlantic to the last one-on-one ''debates'' before the 2016 US elections, and contrasting them with the famed Nixon-Kennedy televised show-downs from 1960, the decline is not something which politicians in Estonia – arguing in a foreign language – have been a part of. In fact they goes against this trend.

There was a bit too much reading from scripts, though not literally, and not uniquely (Kennedy would have done the same in his debates; his attention to detail in choreographing virtually his every waking moment is well documented in the benchmark biography, by his speech-writer, Theodore Sorensen).

Stage-managed performances

In too many cases, panellists reverted to their regular mantras; relief that a particular topic did not pop up was expressed to me by at least one participant, post-debate.

Some parties sent very inexperienced candidates, some of them not even politicians as we've seen. Sometimes the first of these was unavoidable; Estonia 200 and Richness of Life were only formed in the second half of 2018. On the other hand, the gulf in experience on the political barricades in the all-woman panel between Yana Toom and Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (Reform) on the one hand, and the rest of the panel on the other, was quite apparent, though to their credit neither took advantage of this particularly.

Estonian politics and society is notable for its conciliatory approach and desire to smooth things over. It's not that people don't have bust ups, they surely do, sometimes about comically trivial things, but these get squared away for the greater good. This was most recently demonstrated in the governmental split on the UN Global Migration Compact late in 2018. As in much of Europe, Estonian governments are nearly always coalitions. This should not be taken to mean consensus strangles everything, however. In fact there is a much greater diversity of stances in the mainstream, not just on social issues but in the economy, security and more, than there is in my native UK, where what journalist Peter Hitchens calls the Blarite Consensus dumbed down political interplay to an incredible extent. Forgetting how to defend something with logic and reasoning, as soon as something divisive came along (ie. Brexit) we are left with awful cracks showing with the current predicament of sub-par ''leaders''.

In short, parties throw up a wide range of often conflicting ideas, and by part haggling, part pecking order, part Hegelian to-and-fro, a mean course emerges. We can expect this in future too, particularly since the Centre Party has matured in the last couple of years.

Party members look like their parties!

They say a dog comes to resemble its owner, or vice versa, but it was amusing to see how much party representatives on the nine-member panel on Friday resemble their own parties. Whether it be the spruce and business-like Raimond Kaljulaid from Centre's newer incarnation, the wholesome Richness of Life candidate, Riinu Lepa, the affable Green Party member, Olev-Andres Tinn, or the forthright, direct, but often pained-looking Martin Helme of EKRE, and everything in between, what you see is very much what you get, with Estonian politics.

However, and in direct contrast to the above, one of the less appealing aspects of political parties in Estonia is the extent to which parties receive state subsidies, and the concomitant accountability. We're well into silly season and mud-slinging on who used which money from where to spend on what, but it is still the case – party funding is not very clear.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that some parties are set up largely as a way to attempt to obtain funds from the state, from donors, and from members. The state subsidies for instance, while fairly standard practice in democracies from the second half of the twentieth century, can often seem like a cash-cow unrelated to real performance (though it is pegged to the number of Riigikogu seats a party has).

This is not just a question of the largers parties taking all. The greatest amount of opacity is amongst those never likely to be in office and thus under the radar to a larger extent.

Financial rewards for having a successful party

The issuing of the unfortunately-named ''protection money'', for parties' pet-projects, is also a contentious issue, and one that is surely open to abuse. One particularly strange outcome from the party funding system as a whole, sees the Free Party, hovering around the 500 members needed to even legally qualify as a party, nonetheless taking in over €100,000 in state subsidies in just one quarter of 2018. Has all this gone on election campaigning and other necessaries? Probably not.

Again, the tendency towards conciliation means we may never know the full story of party finances. But it does mean we are spared the sometimes cringe-worthy polarisation that characterises politics in the US or the UK. This didn't mean there were no sparks, however. I've already mentioned Yana Toom and Keit Pentus-Rosimmanus, whose willingness to get into things right from the get go was much appreciated. Friday's debate saw some jousting too, particularly between Mart Luik (Isamaa) and Taavi Rõivas – former coalition bedfellows, between Martin Helme and Raimond Kaljulaid, between Martin Helme and Marina Kaljurand, etc. This makes for good viewing, folks, and brought life to what could have been a drab and functional affair.

The debates brought clarity to many questions and concentrated minds on what is at stake in March, I hope. Of course, the bulk of the electorate will choose to be informed in Estonian, or Russian, but providing debates in English was far more than a vanity project, or an optional extra. The ''foreign vote'' can count for something at the European elections in May (all EU citizens can vote). People have long memories too, so when the local elections roll around a couple of years from now, the groundwork laid here could translate into votes even then (where everyone with a non-temporary residence permit can vote).

We do need labels

As a whole the debates were an excellent showcase for Estonia, Estonian politics, and the country's willingness to engage with the outside world in what is actually its third language. We got to see democracy in action, not least with the rapid response from all sides to the all-male panel debacle.

There's a lot of talk about how we don't need labels, how the old tags are no longer applicable. In fact, we DO need labels. Terms like liberal or conservative still mean something, and this goes for everything else in trying to get a diverse panel (for which we can try even harder next time). Taking the alternative to its extreme, we could say that since gender denominators don't mean anything any more, having an ''all-woman'' debate is meaningless. Which is, of course, nonsense.

I noted that Estonian politicians resemble their parties, but even more than that, they resemble the electorate to a much greater extent than where I'm from in the UK. Whilst we're hardly going to have an enquiry into panellists' sexual orientation, for instance, we need to bear in mind other considerations, most notably in respect of the Russian speaking minority in Estonia, in future debates in English – and I'm sure there will be many more.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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