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An Estonian anti-party revolt could lead to a new democratic system

I am a Liberal in more or less all meanings of the word. I am also a profound supporter of Estonia, the country where I have made my home over the past four years. My relationship with Estonia dates back decades, to when I was still in high school in 1979 and first got involved with the fight for freedom in Eastern and Central Europe, which was also the same year that I joined the Liberal Party.

One of the many great things about Estonia is that, since independence was recovered in 1991, it has been dominated by liberal ideas in both economics and politics. Indeed the the liberal Reform party has been and remains the most popular political party, while the opposition Centre Party is also a member of Liberal International, albeit that it represents a populist Liberal strand that I have less sympathy with. In fact one can find liberals in all of the Estonian political parties and there is no doubt that Liberalism is deeply woven into the political tapestry of Estonia.

Yet even the most nominally Liberal organisation may grow lazy or even corrupt if it loses sight of the need for political dialogue based on a certain amount of humility. Over the past few years no Estonian political party has escaped allegations that they have sought to break the rules on party funding. The nominally Conservative IRL has been accused of providing illegal documents to foreigners in exchange for donations. The Social Democrats too have been alleged to have broken the rules in a similar fashion. The Centre Party faces perennial allegations against their leader, the populist mayor of Tallinn, Edgar Savisaar. In recent months, however, it has been Reform that has faced a storm of different allegations. This, paradoxically, does not -so far- seem to have blunted their support, which has remained solidly above 30%, and comfortably ahead of the other political parties.

Now several activists have made a public complaint about what they see as corruption in the ruling party. They are a fairly heterogeneous bunch, but if I could categorise them I would say that they shared a radical mind set and are very open to what Estonia could be. They are not, in general, party political and certainly not in a tribal way. In fact they are quite genuinely intellectually liberal- and yet in their Tartu Manifesto, they are in revolt against a Liberal party.

Occasionally in the past on this blog I have made criticisms of things that I believe could be improved about both the political and economic system in this country, and I have noted poor decision making which was- wrongly- taken by the Foreign Minister and others to be a criticism of Reform. In fact it was a sharp criticism of IRL, the Conservative junior coalition partner. Now, however, it seems clear that the Liberalism of Reform is seeing its radical streak blunted both by the compromises of power, which may be unavoidable, and the stagnation of leaders who "focus simply on day to day administration and seem to have lost their political vision", which -by the way- is a comment from one of their own MPs. More and more, over the past two years, when discussing Estonian politics, the word "stagnation" comes up. The fact is that the list system has created a tribe of placemen politicians who lack an individual mandate to propose new ideas or to challenge the political hacks who dominate the back rooms of all political parties. The result is complacency and inertia- and increasingly a sense of frustration with a system of party politics that requires regular infusions of questionable cash.

In May 2010, just before the last general election, the radical theatre company, NO99 company, created one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre ever seen in Europe: The Conference of United Estonia. Advised by some of those who have now challenged the current political consensus, it was a huge production that exposed many of the critical problems facing the Estonian body politics. It should have been a wake up call for citizens to challenge their leaders more. Many politicians feared that the theatrical event might actually become a real political party and challenge the political establishment- some hoped that it would. Despite this powerful manifestation of disgust at political party corruption, the political establishments of all parties have ignored the message that United Estonia was sending.

Yet, the Tartu Manifesto that the activists have made against the specific problems of Reform has wider implications for the whole of Estonia. The fact is that citizens do have a weapon that they can wield against the political establishment, and that is based on the growing use of the Internet for Estonians to vote. At the last election over 25% of the votes were cast online, and the next election could see a further rapid increase. Estonia is now not only a physical nation, it is also an Internet community, The political discourse, as in many other countries, has moved out from Parliaments. The difference is that Estonians now have an efficient and cheap way to reduce party influence and make critical political and economic decisions directly. The implication, both of United Estonia and the Tartu Manifesto, is that the political establishment ought to be weakened, and the online voting system leading to more direct democracy is the method by which this might be achieved.

As a Liberal I can only welcome this possibility. As a Radical I have always believed in trust of the people, and the well educated, serious minded Estonian nation is a perfect laboratory for a new, technology based, liberal, direct democracy, as it has been for a responsible,liberal free market economics.

My friend, Daniel Vaarik, one of the signatories of the Tartu Manifesto, on his superb Memokraat blog, makes a point that technology at a certain time may seem unchallengeable- yet eventually the Knight in Armour can be destroyed by the cannon. I think he is right, and the 19th century technology of representative democracy may now be facing the unanswerable challenge of a validated Internet-based direct democracy. Of course, the political establishment may seek to blunt this challenge - and almost certainly will. However the key to political success is to understand what you want and to work exclusively to that end. 

It is not just in the centre that Estonian politics is renewing itself. New, more influential regional groups - not least in the South, but also in the West and North East- may also help to shake up the cozy consensus in the picturesque Estonian national Parliament in Tallinn. Estonians in Brussels talk about extending the radical Liberal vision- and this may challenge the current arrangements in Tallinn too. The period of stagnation may be coming to an end. Whatever comes next may be less stable in the short term, but will also be more interesting and dynamic. The renewal of Liberal Estonia in a more radical shape will certainly be extremely interesting.

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