Background to the election
Estonia gained independence from the USSR on 6th Sept., 1991, a couple of weeks after the abortive coup attempt in Moscow against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. From this point onward, the Estonian Popular Front, founded in 1988, took the lead in political life. Led by Edgar Savisaar (now Mayor of Tallinn and leader of the Centre Party) and Marju Lauristin (now a leader of the Moderate Party), the Popular Front expanded to include various nationalist parties such as the staunchly anti-Communist “Pro Patria Union” led by one-time prime minister Mart Laar. Eventually the Popular Front disintegrated into the plethora of parties visible in Estonia today, and the republic began its post-independence political life of endlessly shifting coalitions.
There was not much to distinguish the leading parties competing in the 2nd March election from each other. The Moderates, Centre Party, Reform Party, Res Publica and Pro Patria all agreed on issues such as NATO and EU entry, privatization and continuation of the present discriminatory policies towards the Russian minority. The People’s Union finessed their position on the EU question somewhat by stating that it would not support entry into a ‘federal Europe’. A smaller entity, the Independence Party had a different profile being opposed to EU membership, but as it is regularly attacked for neo-fascism, it never surmounts the 5% threshold necessary to gain a seat in parliament.
Although the left-leaning Centre Party came first in both 1999 and this election it did not form the government on either occasion although it later joined the governing coalition in January, 2002. It is a common feature of proportional representational systems that a country’s most popular political party never gets to govern. In the case of the Centre Party this is even more bizarre. As pointed out, despite the propaganda Estonia is a poor country which, nevertheless, seems to always have extreme right-wing governments foisted upon it. Perhaps someone, somewhere senses the absurdity of this situation as names are changed and new parties emerge in order to deflect attention from the suspicion that power in Estonia is divied up between a political elite which somehow always manages to be in government. The emergence of the Res Publica party in 2001 is a case in point. The party includes among its members many names from the supposedly discredited Pro Patria party. It is also noteworthy that the respected Estonian exile, Rein Taagepera, a professor of social science at the University of California, was an intellectual father-figure to the party. This suggests that it has support (and clout) with the US administration. Taagepera emerged in the late eighties as one of the leading promoters of Estonia’s independence. In 1993 he wrote the official account of the small, plucky nation’s emergence from the Soviet embrace, Estonia: Return to Independence.
The 4 Russian parties in Estonia combined into one entity called the Russian Party. However, it failed to cross the 5% threshold on 3rd March.
Estonia is divided into 15 counties (maakonnad) and 255 parishes (vallad). Six municipalities serve as independent territorial-administrative units of government, while the parishes are divided into villages (külad) and townships (asulad), each with their own soviets. For the election, however, the territory of Estonia was divided into 12 electoral districts, including the cities of Tallinn (the capital) and Tartu. Some districts encompassed two or three counties. The number of electoral mandates allocated to each district varied between 6 and 12, but because of the complicated electoral system the number of MPs sent to the Riigikogu deviated from the official numbers when all the counting had finished (see chapter on Electoral System, below).
With problems such as widespread drug addiction, unemployment, population decrease and child abuse on ready display, foreign observers were apparently meant to believe the most pressing issue in the 2003 election was whether or not the country should have a progressive or flat rate income tax. The various major parties had constructed different approaches to this question. The Centre Party, led by Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar, had proposed introduction of a progressive tax: 33% for those earning 16,000 kroons (EEK) a month, 26% for those earning 6,000-16,000 EEK, and 15% for those earning up to 6,000 EEK (US$1 = approx. 5 EEK). The Reform Party of Prime Minister Siim Kallas wanted to keep the flat rate but lower it from 26% to 20%, while the newcomer party “Res Publica” campaigned on the idea of raising the minimum tax-free income. Other parties also had a tax plank in their platforms. The Moderate Party supposedly wanted to keep the 26% flat rate but raise the rate to 33% for anyone earning over 25,000 EEK a month. The Estonian People’s Union proposed increasing tax-free allowances to 2,000 EEK a month plus a further allowance of 2,000 EEK for each child. Most of these tax schemes were never more than academic, since even the most optimistic prediction for a single party’s electoral performance was never more than 35-40 seats out of 101. In the event, no party even surpassed 28 seats, and so the tax plans of the respective parties were destined to be lost in the inter-party haggling of a coalition government.
It is ironic that all the parties favoured by the West - Pro Patria, the Moderates, the Reform Party and Res Publica - advocated an increase in the birth rate in their election manifestos. This was eerily reminiscent of the policies of Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the head of Hitler’s Women’s League, as were the added economic incentives on the Scholtz-Klink model. As pointed out by BHHRG, it is generally accepted that the Estonian population has shrunk since independence although, bizarrely, the electorate has grown from 766,626 in 1999 to 858,505 in 2003. Who is right? One thing is for sure, namely that many people officially on the register will not be living in the country any longer. The problem is not persuading people to have children but rather providing work for people already born. However, as Res Publica also promised to nearly double the prison population, the unemployment figures could soon go down with the party in government.