Did you ever have a friend in high school or camp that you weren’t too happy to be friends with, but you hung out with anyway because you yourself had few friends and you sort of felt bad for the guy? That’s sort of how I interpret the relationship between Edgar Savisaar’s Center Party (KESK) and Villu Reiljan’s Estonian People’s Union (ERL).
Now, let me clue you into my biases. My wife’s family is from Viljandimaa – Mart Laar country – and so when I was introduced to Estonian politics Isamaa Liit came across favorably. These were the Estonian nationalists – but nationalists in a good way. They were into folk dancing and sült and promoting the Estonian language. But while I lived in Estonia, I witnessed the rise of Res Publica – an army of smart-looking youths barely out of their master’s studies that looked poised to fuse Reform’s emphasis on liberal economic policies with Isamaa’s focus on the Estonian people.
Most people I met in Estonia were of my age, educated, fairly successful (ie. were not pensioners or alcoholics, or, if they were drunks, they were functional drunks as the definition of alcoholic in Estonia is not quite clear), and thus supported one of these parties, although there were some that liked the Social Democrats, who I sort of liked because I have a soft spot for social democratic philosophy (for all of you libetarians reading this from Finland for Thought, that’s NOT an invitation to hate).
Anyway, the bogeyman in this scenario was Edgar Savisaar, who in the midst of Juhan Parts’ “vali kord” (choose order) campaign was smugly thrusting the Nixonian victory sign into the air. Savisaar was the dreaded “populist” – a very nasty term in Estonian politics which summons the image of a nippernaadi-like character that promises you peace, land, bread, free Internet and all the Vana Tallinn you can drink in exchange for your vote. Parts won in the short term, but Savisaar has won since then, tacking up a pretty sizeable victory in 2005, especially in Tallinn where the Centrists control the city council. So while he may stink of the kohuke scandal, and the signing of the pact with the Russians, and, before that, the taping scandal, Savisaar is on the rebound. KESK may only have 28 votes in the Riigikogu, but he has a certain sense of momentum.
Now, small parties in a parliamentary system cannot win enough votes to assemble a ruling coalition. So they are, by nature, parasitic. Among right wing parties in Estonia, there is the hope that one of them – these days the Reform party – will be the breadwinner and take home enough votes to set up the next government. And similarly, for ERL Edgar Savisaar’s party represents a ticket to power – ERL relies on KESK for its power.
Now, usually that big guy-little guy partnership favors KESK because KESK, being the bogeyman of the Estonian right wing, has few parties it can form coalitions with. But these days, because of the presidential election, KESK is facing some big decisions about its future.
That’s because ERL, which can’t muster a positive vote for sitting president Arnold Rüütel in parliament with its paltry number of votes, even with KESK’s support, wants the election to go to the electoral college where it can get Rüütel reinstated for another five years. The president appoints the prime minister following elections. You can see why ERL would like Rüütel to stay. He also keeps them more relevant, especially when their government presence is not big (they have 13 seats – as much as Isamaa and the Social Dems put together). Plus he’s weak. That favors KESK because it will have little interference from the head of state, should it head the next coalition.
But KESK is looking at the 2007 elections as the big year when it sweeps the right wing parties from power and Edgar Savisaar gets to be peaminister once more – and this time one that was actually elected. Factor that into that the public’s support for Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a social democrat that grew up in exile in Sweden, the US, and Canada, and who, no doubt, will not help Savisaar’s attempts to build up business between Estonia and Russia. Ilves, however, consistently polls above all other challengers in opinion polls. He is the clear popular favorite. And there lies the big dilemma for KESK.
If KESK supports Ilves, they’ll seem reasonable – they’ll be able to expand that large umbrella they are building because people will see the Centrists as honoring the will of the people. Right now, their strength is strongest amongst pensioners and the Russian minority (where they actively campaign). If it supported Ilves, it could buy off even more of the Reform and Social Dem’s base. It could be a true electoral power house. However, if KESK does that – which is in its own best interest – it may alienate the only real political ally it has – ERL.
The way ERL is talking these days, it seems like they are the ones running the show.
The presidential candidates of Estonia may be known as early as this week, as the Center Party and the People’s Union enter another day of negotiations over the topic.
Also this week, the five major political parties are expected to narrow their shortlist of preferred candidates from two to one.
The chairman of the People’s Union Villu Reiljan believes that the party will sign a cooperation agreement with the Center Party even before Thursday, when the presidential candidate of five parliamentary parties would be picked.
Kadri Must, secretary-general of the Center Party, did not share Reiljan’s optimism concerning the speed of signing the agreement. She said that the parties had only met once on the issue and the talks were still in a too early stage to start looking for pens.
Watching the two negotiate you get the impression of how desperate ERL is for KESK’s support and how much of a political animal KESK is. You get the sense that KESK would gladly sell their little brother ERL to install Savisaar as king of Estonia.
And that’s sort of the predicament they find themselves in. Personally, I think that KESK owes ERL nothing. Because as badly as they want Rüütel to be president in the winter of his years, they owe KESK more, at this moment, than KESK will ever owe them, especially if they clean house in 2007. KESK could annoint Ilves president and ERL would still want to ride its coattails to coalition government next year.
The political world is defined by self-interest. And KESK now has to decide, where exactly its interest lies. Will it shut out the popular favorite as a favor to the smaller party clinging to its side, or will it take ERL’s support for granted, and widen its big tent.