No four-lane highways, no steps to encourage entrepreneurship in the counties, no concrete substance in regional programs — in its first few months of existence, the current ruling coalition hasn't given a single indication that they have any solutions to offer to help stop marginalization in Estonia, Põhjarannik editor-in-chief Erik Gamzejev says in commentary on Vikerraadio.
Is there a connection between a local area's standard of living and locals' level of political participation? Based on the recent European Parliament elections, one could conclude that there is — and a pretty clear one.
While average voter turnout in Estonia stood at 37.6 percent, and peak voter turnout was recorded in Tallinn and Tartu, where wages are higher and real estate more expensive, the lower end of this ranking was populated by Valga County, Võru County, Põlva County and, with a particularly low 24.3 percent turnout, Ida-Viru County. In other words, the same counties where marginalization been the subject of much discussion for years already.
Ida-Viru County's low voter turnout was further amplified by the discouragement of many previous Centre Party voters. Now that Edgar Savisaar is no longer running for election, Yana Toom is no longer as fresh a candidate as she was four and five years ago, and Jüri Ratas is teaming up with the Helme family, whose rhetoric pales against the coalition party these same voters used to label Isamaalitchiks, this kind of bafflement was to be expected.
The logical manifestation in this situation is sitting around during the elections. It'd be nice to imagine that, in a situation like this, other parties would have a better chance in Ida-Viru County. That Narva and Kohtla-Jäve residents who previously almost exclusively voted for the Centre Party might discover Social Democratic or Reformesque liberal worldviews and vote for them.
Nonsense. The majority of them just won't vote at all, as several previous elections have shown. They are not interested in or affected by what is going on in Estonian politics, as not a single party has managed to earn their trust. Once the elections are over, political parties aren't particularly interested in how to earn these people's support either. But that doesn't stop anyone from spinning yarns about the importance of societal cohesion.
Situation grim in Ida-Viru County
The most effective way to restore interest in politics in the people of Ida-Viru and Southeastern Estonia would be clear and understandable steps on the part of the central authorities regarding how to improve the standard of living in these regions.
The current coalition parties have received a lot of votes from these regions and from people who are unsatisfied with their current standard of living. It would be all the more reasonable, then, if the Centre-EKRE-Isamaa coalition were to offer this target group robust solutions.
Unfortunately, the current coalition's agreement remained vague when it came to these matters. The state budget strategy unveiled last week, as in the ruling parties' agreement regarding what the state's biggest expenditures will be in the years to come, doesn't include any ideas that might bring about significant change either.
The goal of the regional policy program was worded clearly enough: "People will have access in every region to paid jobs, quality services and an enjoyable living environment conducive to diverse activities." But it does not detail what the coalition plans to do in order to achieve this goal.
Attempts to lower the price of a half-liter bottle of beer by 12.69 cents will not make life better in outlying regions, just as free transport hasn't. Even the nearly €4 million allocated to Ida-Viru program and nearly €1 million allocated to the Southern Estonian program per year won't bring about any groundbreaking changes.
Especially considering the fact that, for example, the situation is going to turn grim in Ida-Viru County as a result of the premature collapse of the oil shale energy industry. This is the biggest industry in the region, which has helped boost the area's average standard of living.
If mining and energy engineering jobs paying €1,500-2,000 per month disappear, this will affect not just thousands of families, but also businesses throughout the county. It's as though the state has been preparing for this for the past 15 years already, but in the moment of truth, ministers just go back to talking about long-term solutions.
Promises melting away
The construction of four-lane highways, which was loudly promised by nearly every party ahead of the elections, is now nowhere to be seen in the state budget strategy. When it comes to fulfilling campaign promises, it's often the case that one coalition partner will point the finger at another and say, "We would do it, but one party won't agree to it."
In this case, they all agree on it, but colossal promises have a tendency to melt in the face of realistic opportunities. And math is not made of the same flexible stuff that campaign promises are.
Quality roads to all parts of Estonia, laying the groundwork for the creation of jobs, and good schools and a good living environment are the main factors that would help support life outside of Tallinn and Tartu. Which is why, for MPs elected by the counties, this should be their hill to die on in the Riigikogu. Currently, they command a majority. In the next Riigikogu, they might not.
Editor: Aili Vahtla