The Estonian Social Democratic Party (Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond) selected a new leader last week. Sven Mikser, 36, a former defense minister, has now pledged to lead his party to victory and take his rightful place as prime minister in Stenbock House. In 2015.
Mikser’s political pedigree is a bit like SDE’s itself. For the first half of his public life, he belonged to Edgar Savisaar’s Centre Party (Eesti Keskerakond). Then, in 2005, he left the “green monster” for SDE, where he quickly became one of the party’s top candidates.
Several SDE leaders have a similar background. Both Centre and SDE emerged from the Estonian Popular Front in the early nineties, but SDE has been more able to form a coalition with right-wing parties, most recently one in 2007 which lasted until the party was expelled from the government in 2009. The main obstacle to reconciliation between the more politically similar Centre and SDE has been the leadership style of Centre’s Savisaar. Following the municipal elections last year, former SDE leader Jüri Pihl led the party into a coalition with Centre in Tallinn.
Pihl stood again for the party leadership last week but was ousted by those supporting Mikser. It is now his unenviable duty to return the party to its ideological roots, steering it away from its negative image as a “poodle” for the conservative and liberal parties, while dealing with the 800-pound gorilla of Savisaar’s Centre Party.
The Estonian electorate tends to favor the conservative and liberal parties in parliamentary elections. One reason for this is that they have mostly been in power since 1991. That gives them the advantage of experience and the ability to take credit for everything Estonia has achieved. But with high unemployment, Estonians are also edgier than they were during the boom years. And with most of Europe still climbing out of recession, the ability to just head to the UK for work isn’t there anymore.
The appearance of a candidate like Mikser who has the experience of conservative or liberal politician but who speaks to their economic interests might convince voters who have traditionally voted Reform or Isamaa to choose SDE, and it might sway some younger Centre voters to ditch their candidate for someone fresher.
But it is an uphill battle. Most Estonian voters I have encountered are pretty uninformed when it comes to left-wing politics. They refer to social democrats as “socialists,” which, in their mind, might as well be communists or anarcho-syndicalists. This is why SDE’s website has for months, if not years, been playing a clip that lists Tony Blair, Tarja Halonen, and Olof Palme (not Daniel Ortega, Fidel Castro, and Lê Duẩn) as social democrats.
Will Mikser realize his goal of becoming prime minister in 2015? It could happen. On one hand, he lacks the experience of the Ansips and Laars and Savisaars and Pihls of Estonian politics, but, on the other hand, he doesn’t have their baggage either. He also happens to have an impressive command of the English language.