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Estonia: Savisaar Key To Low Estonian Turnout

By Mel Huang

Tallinn, 18 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Lost in the coverage of Estonia's recent parliamentary elections (March 7) is the surprisingly low number of people who voted.

While some commentators sounded alarm bells over the turnout -- officially put at 57 percent -- the press focused primarily on seat distribution and coalition-building.

Why was voter turnout more than 10 percent down from the 1995 elections? Did voter apathy set in for Estonia's third general election since the restoration of independence?

There are several reasons why turnout was significantly lower than four years ago:

-- Confusion over the complex electoral system.

-- The similarities of the political parties' platforms.

-- Disenchantment after the long and lackluster campaign.

-- Even the beautiful spring-like weather on polling day.

The main reason, however, was doubtless the dominant theme of the campaigns pursued by the large parties: namely, Savisaar or no Savisaar.

The controversial leader of the populist center-left Center Party, former Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar has polarized Estonian politics more than any other single personality.

Savisaar -- through both his policies and his political behavior -- has earned the strong adoration or intense dislike of a significant segment of the population. In the 1999 election campaign, it appears that voters put off by this polarization decided not to cast ballots.

The Center Party was essentially the only main political force to advocate significant policy changes. In the name of social justice, it proposed scrapping the much-vaunted flat-tax system and introducing a progressive tax. In contrast to all the other main political parties -- including the closely aligned Country People's Party -- it advocated the relaxation of citizenship rules.

These two issues put Savisaar in sharp opposition to all other parties, especially the strong center-right United Opposition, composed of the Fatherland Union, the joint list of the Moderates/People's Party, and the Reform Party. While the parliament voted to outlaw election alliances last fall, the signing of a cooperation agreement among these forces in late December consolidated the opposition against Savisaar's Center Party.

When President Lennart Meri issued his warning against electing "authoritarian" politicians in his Independence Day speech last month, most commentators immediately pointed an accusing finger at Savisaar.

The United Opposition took advantage of the press obsession over the presidential warning by launching further attacks on the trustworthiness of the Center Party leader. In a scathing commentary, former Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves of the People's Party strongly criticized Savisaar, attacking his "Big Brother" persona.

To his credit, Savisaar did not seek retribution by slamming the personalities competing in the elections. There had been fears of a possible mud-slinging campaign, not least because Savisaar is thought to be party to secrets about many of the country's top politicians.

In 1995, he resigned as interior minister because of his links to illegal phone-tapping and the recording of conversations between prominent politicians. By focusing on party policies, however, Savisaar managed to deflect some of the attacks on his personality.

In the end, Savisaar's Center Party gained a larger-than-expected number of seats -- 28. Support for him was consistently high throughout the country's 11 electoral districts. Savisaar's proposals for a progressive tax system and softer citizenship policies clearly found resonance among a large chunk of the electorate. The United Opposition also won a larger number of votes than expected, gaining a combined total of 53 seats. As a result of its cooperation agreement and anti-Savisaar campaign, the alliance commands a majority of seats and is most likely to form the new government.

The prospective new government -- while it enjoys its victory -- should remember that less than 27 percent of the electorate voted for the coalition parties and that many did so just to keep Savisaar out of office. It should also remember that nearly 43 percent of the electorate did not vote at all.

With local elections due later this year, the winners of the parliamentary elections need to work fast and hard to establish credibility within the country's political environment. Otherwise, turnout in the fall local elections could be even lower.

(Mel Huang is a contributor to RFE/RL based in Tallinn.)