Opinion: Reform wins thanks to superior campaign tactics

"Sh*t, even the government used to be better." Reform Man queuing behind Jürgen Ligi, who is about to turn around and say, "Of course it was." Source: Youtube/Reform Party

Yesterday's election serves as a practical reminder of the fact that voters tend to be emotional rather than rational, and that reason and common sense don't enter into politics. The Reform Party has once again proven to be perfectly aware of this — and capable of using it to its advantage to win a well-deserved victory.

Reform ran on a platform of threadbare ideas after two years of almost completely failed opposition politics in spite of a weak and perennially bickering government. In more than a dozen debates leading up to the election, not once did anyone come to the verdict that they would understand better than anyone else what is going on.

Yet they not only won, but they did better than in the last election.

E-vote result no reason for paranoia, Reform win expected

Those critical of Estonia's e-voting system will now point to the record-breaking e-vote, which the Reform Party won overwhelmingly (26.5% ahead of the next-best party) and which catapulted Kaja Kallas into the top-three best personal election results in Estonian political history.

Still, looking at the distribution of the e-vote, Reform wasn't the great surprise, as they were far ahead in this category already in previous elections. Instead support of EKRE soared, an expression of the fact that they have managed to get a great share of Estonia's youngest voters on their side.

The actual surprise is the backing of Reform in the paper vote, which turned out to be much greater than anyone would have expected. There were some signs, eg the fact that ERR's vote compass was very busy still on Saturday afternoon, that people were making up their minds at the last minute — which definitely helped Reform, as the party decidedly cranked up its ad spend over the last two weeks before the election.

Anti-e-vote propaganda, local government trouble back to haunt Centre

Another detail that will have helped Reform is the fallout of Centre's extreme mistrust and outright paranoia back in the days of Edgar Savisaar concerning the e-voting system. The reluctance of Centre voters to use it goes back to this at times hysterical denunciation.

Adding to this, while Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) may have demonstrated that his party can govern just as well as its competitors, the party is not yet fit to win an election. The attitude towards Centre at the local level is influenced decidedly by everyday politics, which in both of the party's strongholds, in Tallinn as well as in Ida-Viru County, is still defined by clientele politics, greed and corruption.

Reform's talent for drama saves the day

One may criticise the Reform Party for many things, but there is one area where they are better than any other party in this country: public relations.

While their first series of adverts in the now finished campaign was as unimaginative as it was stupid (quote: "Everything was better in the old days, sh*t, even the government was better"), they really upped their game, going for the jugular with economic threat scenarios and, towards the end, also playing the famous "Russia card" up to an extent where their education policy was concerned.

Stoking up fears about the economy and about the government taking money away from the people eventually did the trick. The fact that there was really no reason for this sort of fear-mongering, with business profits up 4%, bankruptcies down 20%, exports up 12%, GDP up 3.9%, salaries increasing and unemployment at a 20-year low in 2018, all that apparently didn't enter into it.

Other measures of Mr Ratas' government, such as increased child benefits and teacher salaries as well as a variable tax-free income that saw low and middle-income earners getting more money, were also disregarded by a large part of the electorate that is nowhere near the income figures of an MP or a Reform Party leadership member.

The bait and switch worked: once again, those parts of the Estonian population that actually profited from the outgoing government's politics ended up voting against it.

Instead, Reform is back in all its old glory, an observation supported by the fact that its coalition delegation includes ex-ministers Jürgen Ligi, Taavi Rõivas and Arto Aas, a choice which suggests that there is plenty more of Reform's executive "fine-tuning" to come.

Reform-led government appropriate expression of political situation

Still, one can't help but think that a government dominated by a centre-left bloc with just 36 votes in parliament would hardly be an accurate expression of the societal and political situation and will in this country.

Like it or not, Estonia, by and large, is a conservative nation. Not even the younger generations could be relied on to back a more leftist course, as EKRE's success specifically among young voters has now demonstrated very nicely.

And no matter how disagreeable one may find it that a right-wing populist party like EKRE could gain as much ground as they just did, such is the situation in Estonia today, and such is the challenge facing the Social Democrats, the Centre Party and perhaps also Estonia 200.

They will have to live with it, improve their own game and learn how to explain to voters just why they should go left instead of right.

So far, there seems to be no sign of that. Better luck next time.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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