BHHRG observed the voting in Paldiski, Keila, Rakvere, Vaike-Maarja and Tartu. On the whole, the voting was conducted in an orderly and peaceful manner, but BHHRG’s observers were struck by the absence of domestic observers in any of the polling stations - the only exception was at Paldiski No. 1, where one observer was present. This observer was actually a candidate from the Russian Party (which campaigned on a platform of overhauling the health system to allow inexpensive Russian medicines into the country). This should set alarm bells ringing for the forthcoming EU referendum is held with a similar dearth of domestic observers.
In other polling stations, BHHRG encountered a few minor problems. In Keila No. 2, also in the 4th district, BHHRG found the polling station housed in a sports complex that did not qualify as a public building. The complex, which included an indoor swimming pool, was a business concern that belonged to a “sports union.” This was odd, considering Keila was clearly a large enough municipality to have schools and other public buildings to serve as polling stations. BHHRG was bothered by the large poster of Reform Party leader and Prime Minister Siim Kallas displayed just beyond the parking lot, a little too close to the polling station entrance for comfort.
When BHHRG’s observers presented the Keila commission chairwoman with their observer badges, the woman displayed ignorance of the electoral law by demanding that BHHRG show a special letter of accreditation from the National Electoral Committee before she answered any questions. Out of 2,953 registered voters, 766 had voted by midday, including 312 early voters. At Rakvere No. 2, by 4 p.m. 1,298 people had voted out of 3,164, including 371 early votes. Here, the ballot box was made of clear plexi-glass, so that all ballots could be seen after they were dropped in and, as everywhere, a commission worker stood over the ballot box to stamp the ballot papers and watch voters as they dropped them in. But the ballots were not sealed, merely folded once, and many of the pieces of paper were in an open position inside the box so that the vote could be easily seen. This could hardly be described as fully respectful of the principle of secrecy of the ballot.
The chairman was not present during the entire time BHHRG’s observers were in the polling station, so that all questions had to be answered by subordinates. Also, this was the only polling station where the national list of candidates was not up on the wall. Usually, the national list was openly displayed in the common area, while the list of candidates running in the particular district was inside the polling booth. Here, the national list was in a loose-leaf binder on a shelf, so that voters would have had to open it and flip through if they wanted to see the national list. Few voters entered the polling station while BHHRG was there, and none consulted the book.
In the village of Vaike-Maarja, at 6:15 p.m., BHHRG was told that roughly 50% of the 2,301 registered voters had cast their ballots, with 18% having voted early. The two voting booths were half-hidden, located in the alcoves of doorways leading to the outside. In polling station No. 16 in Tartu, 1,320 had voted by the time the polls closed out of a total of 2,401 – about 55%. The only troubling feature at this polling station was a large display of student artwork on the walls in the voting area on the theme of the European Union. Paintings incorporating the blue flag with yellow stars loomed over the voters as they went through the polling process, and this struck BHHRG as bordering on undue influence in an election coming only six months before a referendum was due to be held on EU membership.
The count was conducted quickly and without incident, an impressive feature in an election in which counting was so complicated and involved so many candidates. Commission workers demonstrated close attention to detail and conscientiousness about recounting when discrepancies were found. The system of counting in the election was so convoluted that it could conceivably have taken much longer (see Electoral System, below).
Turn-out appeared on the low side; the official statistics for voter turn-out nationwide (58%) was higher than BHHRG’s observation. However, 17% of the electorate had voted early. The final number of seats obtained by each party was as follows:
Centre Party: 25.4% (28 seats)
Res Publica: 24.6% (28 seats)
Reform Party: 17.7% (19 seats)
People’s Union: 13.0% (13 seats)
Pro Patria Union: 7.7% (7 seats)
The Moderates: 7.0% (6 seats)
Res Publica’s tie for first place came as a slight surprise, as it was forecast that the Centre Party would win an outright majority. Some Estonians commented to BHHRG’s observers that the victory of Res Publica represented a mass protest vote, because people were fed up with the establishment parties and hence voted for the newcomer. But, as has been noted, Res Publica is not composed of political newcomers but largely from figures who broke away from the Pro Patria Union, whose popularity had declined drastically over the past several years, and whose core electoral support came from émigrés living in the West – émigrés with citizenship have the right to vote in Estonian parliamentary elections.
Although the conduct of the Estonian election was basically correct, with few serious violations observed in the voting process, there are worrying aspects to the system. For example, approximately 17% of people voted in the pre-election period. In BHHRG’s experience this number is relatively high and, of course, this type of voting tends to be unmonitored. Similarly, a large number of Estonians living abroad are registered to vote – again in an unsupervised manner.
But the most problematic aspect of this election from BHHRG’s point of view was the absurd system for tabulating votes. Dr. Uno Silberg pointed out to BHHRG that the Estonian government changed the electoral procedure after every election, so that Estonia had become a “guinea pig” for newfangled voting experiments. Indeed, BHHRG was informed by Res Publica – a big beneficiary of the new election system – that one of its leading lights was a famous expert on international election systems, Rein Taagepera, who lived in California. Certainly, this was an example of proportional representation taken to ridiculous extremes.
According to the website of the Estonian National Electoral Committee, the procedure for counting votes was as follows:
There are three rounds of counting. In the first round, candidates who receive the same or more votes than the simple quota in their electoral districts are considered elected. The simple quota is calculated for each electoral district by dividing the number of votes in the electoral region by the number of mandates allocated to the district.
In the second round of counting, mandates are awarded to candidates on candidate lists of parties receiving more than 5% of the votes nationally, with the candidates ranked according to the number of direct votes they received. A party’s list receives as many mandates as the number of times that the number of votes obtained in the electoral districts exceeds the simple quota. The candidates listed at the top of the list who received votes equal to at least 10% of the simple quota are elected.
In the third round of counting, all remaining mandates are distributed between the national candidate lists with at least 5% of the national vote. In this distribution, a modified d’Hondt method is used with a series of 2 to 0.9, 3 to 0.9, 4 to 0.9 and so on.
In the calculation of the comparative figures of each list, as many first elements of the series as there are mandates distributed on the basis of simple quotas to the same list in the electoral district shall be disregarded. Candidates whose names are at the top of the national candidate list and who had received the same or more votes than 5 per cent of the simple quota in their respective electoral districts receive the remaining mandates.
Although BHHRG appreciates that there are probably many mathematically inclined persons who could grasp the essence of such a vote-counting system upon first reading, there can be little doubt that it is gobbledygook to most people, particularly the average voter anywhere in the world. While it may give people such as Rein Taagepera and other electoral “experts” a certain thrill or sense of satisfaction to devise systems such as these, therefore, it would seem to have little to do with the ideal of promoting and strengthening popular representative government. It is not difficult to imagine Estonian electoral officials feeling smug and proud when gazing upon their electoral creation, but for the rest of us it feels like looking at a Frankenstein of electoral law.
In any case, while BHHRG will not waste time trying to put the above explanation into layman’s language, suffice to say that this system resulted in an electoral travesty. In several cases, candidates who won only a few hundred votes gained seats in parliament, while others who secured many times more failed to get in. Evelyn Sepp of the Centre Party won only 292 votes but won a seat. Likewise, the Centre Party’s Kullo Arjakas (415), Toivo Tootsen (301), and Varner Lootsmann (295), Res Publica’s Avo Uprus (372), and the People’s Union’s Mart Opmann (396). The Pro Patria Union’s Lauri Vahtre and Mari-Ann Kelam won 1,691 and 1,391 votes respectively but failed to get into the legislature, while the same party’s Mart Laar won only 1,055, yet managed somehow to get in.
In Electoral District 7, Erika Kruup of Res Publica won 1,047 votes but failed to win a seat, while Res Publica’s Nelli Kalikova – running on the same local list of candidates – won only 755 votes but got into parliament. In District 10, neither the Centre Party’s Tonu Kauba (1,226) nor the Moderates’ Marju Lauristin (1,294) won seats, while the Reform Party’s Margus Hanson (1,082) and Res Publica’s Ene Ergma (979) did. In District 11, the People’s Union candidates Elmer-Johannes Truu, Arno Sild, and Margus Leivo won 1,196, 975 and 792 votes, respectively, but only Mr. Leivo made it into the Riigikogu. Also in District 11, the Reform Party’s Mait Klaassen, Meelis Malberg and Meelis Atonen won 847, 806 and 604 votes, respectively, but only Mr. Atonen got into parliament. In District 12, the People’s Union’s Andres Varik won 2,112 votes but failed to enter parliament, while the Reform Party’s Vaino Linde (1,309) and Res Publica’s Ela Tomson (1,652) did win seats. The list of examples goes on and on.
Such seemingly nonsensical results can be explained basically as follows. A voter chooses a candidate from a local list by writing the number of the candidate on the ballot paper. But the vote essentially registers for the party, not the individual, so that when all the votes are counted nationwide, the candidate the voter has chosen is subordinated to other candidates from that party who rank higher on the party’s national list. Someone voting for the Centre Party’s Vladimir Panov (No. 83 on the national list), for example, gets Evelyn Sepp (No. 12) instead, even though Panov got 1,022 votes and Sepp only 292. A person voting for Res Publica’s Erika Kruup (No. 58), who won 1,047 votes, instead gets Nelli Kalikova (No. 11), who won only 755. And so on and so forth. Only six out of the eleven registered parties competing fielded the maximum number of candidates allowed on their national lists, and these were the six that gained entry to parliament. But a close inspection of these lists reveals the bogus nature of these parties’ “internal organization,” since large chunks of these lists are obviously just names inserted in alphabetical order and not in order of some influence or importance within the “party.” In fact, the only party in Estonia that appeared to BHHRG to conform to a traditional conception of a political party was the Centre Party.
According to BHHRG’s representatives, Estonia is far from the success story it has generally been portrayed. While its convoluted electoral system may be a product of duly ratified legislation, and may indeed be just another “legal” example of proportional representation, Europe-style, the result is that ordinary voters end up with representatives that they do not like or perhaps do not even know. Electoral inventiveness thus becomes a mechanism for the perpetuation of unpopular and corrupt elites. Under such circumstances, the leaders of a country like Estonia could obviously sweep the small republic into the EU and NATO under terms unfavorable to ordinary people, but very lucrative for themselves. If this is the “New Europe,” the future on democracy’s new frontier looks less bright than may be commonly assumed.
In Tartu, BHHRG encountered two gleaming new four-star hotels that were almost completely empty, and was told by the people at the reception desk that they were built by a member of parliament from the Reform Party. The receptionist said that the Reform Party was “very popular” in that neighborhood of Tartu. Yet other Estonians were rather more cynical, saying the hotels were a manifestation of money laundering by oligarchs who had built hotels no one could afford to stay in as a way of investing in the future, waiting for the “right time” to sell. If this is how wealth generated by the “free market” is being spent in Estonia, it is little wonder social and economic conditions have declined since the Soviet days.
Organized crime may be an inevitable symptom of the transition to a “free market,” and the attendant violence – such as bombs that occasionally go off in the city centers (two such explosions blew out the windows of a sports shop in downtown Tallinn a year ago) – may simply be viewed as a problem to be tolerated in the short term. But how “free” are countries like Estonia? At the beginning of 2002, ‘free’ Estonia issued its first internal passports, credit-card-sized plastic cards made by a Swiss company in the basement of Estonia’s main bank, Hansapank. Former President Lennart Meri described the cards, which are embedded with microchips containing all personal information, as “a key to the future.” Such developments in combination with Estonia’s seemingly unconditional pro-US stance in the war on terror portends a future for the small Baltic republic as a sinister little “surveillance state” on a permanent war footing.”
Res Publica presented itself as a newcomer, and gigantic posters of party leader Juhan Parts covered the walls of Tallinn. In fact, as BHHRG learned, Res Publica’s key figures largely hailed from the widely discredited Pro Patria Union. Both Res Publica and Reform pointed the finger at each other before the election in an attempt to establish guilt by association with the supposedly-hated establishment Centre Party. A favourite Res Publica campaign poster featured a photo of Mayor Savisaar standing next to Prime Minister Kallas of Reform and smiling, while a big heart hung over their heads. The caption: “LOVE? Spring is a time of love: one ideology, two parties.” The idea was to present Res Publica as the principled alternative to the Reform Party, which had proven itself to be not below alliances with the Centre. Yet BHHRG learned that the Reform Party’s banner on the Internet pointed the finger at Res Publica for the same crime: “How many districts have a coalition between Res Publica and the Centre Party? More than 12.”
Not surprisingly, soon after the election, Res Publica agreed to enter into a “coalition” with the Reform Party and People’s Union (60 seats), leaving out the Pro Patria Union and Moderates, both of which failed to win any seats in the local elections of October 2002. On 1st April, Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar declined to form a government so, on 2nd April, Juhan Parts (leader of Res Publica) became prime minister. The main points in the coalition agreement are the reduction of tax rates, tough anti-monopoly measures, financial support for women on maternity leave (despite the reduction of tax rates), improvement of border checks. However, the most surreal plank of the new government’s policy is to provide “financial support for international relations studies at Estonian universities”, something which manages to make its Scholtz-Klink policy a model of common sense.
For now, with Juhan Parts as premier and the Reform Party in the coalition government, Estonia’s political future looks like business as usual. Time will tell whether Mr. Parts proves as rock solid in his support of the West as his predecessor was. It is perhaps significant that the lame-duck government of Siim Kallas rushed through approval of the EU accession treaty at its final meeting, indicating that the powers-that-be may not have wanted to take any chances that Res Publica’s campaign populism might turn out to have some substance once the new government took power. According to Eesti Paevaleht on April 7th, an opinion poll conducted from 14th - 27th March by something called the “Turu-uuringute joint-stock company” concluded that 33% of Estonians would prefer Mr. Kallas to head the government, as opposed to only 18% of Mr. Parts (Mr. Savisaar came second with 19% in the poll). Perhaps the process of “doing down” Mr. Parts has already started.
Reform Party Chairman Siim Kallas, who won 10,008 votes in the election (second only to Edgar Savisaar, with 12,960, in the nationwide count), has not taken up his seat in the Riigikogu. As reported by Estonian radio on April 9th, the “replacement MP for Siim Kallas” in parliament is Adres Taimla, who won only 886 votes and ran in Dist. 8 (Jarva and Viljandi counties), while Mr. Kallas ran in Dist. 4 (Harju and Rapla). The situation regarding Harju and Rapla residents’ representation in their national legislature appears no clearer than the workings of the Estonian electoral system as a whole, a fact no doubt advantageous for Mr. Kallas’ future prospects, and for Washington’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering – if need be – on behalf of its trusted friend Siim Kallas to ascend to the premiership again.