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Pyrrhic victory
By Abdul Turay

Published Postimees 23 October 2009

Tallinn let out a collective howl of anguish this Sunday night. Everybody knew what the results of the local elections would be, yet still people didn't want to believe it was true.

It was a resounding victory, an absolute triumph for the Centre party, or so it seems. They got an absolute majority in Tallinn, 53.5 per cent of the votes, better than last time round.

Overall they did better than even recent polls have predicted. The Centre party won 31.1 percent of the popular vote. If this result was reflected in a general election it would make the Centre Party the large single party in Riigikogu.

At least as far as Tallinn is concerned I was wrong about one thing. Savisaar is not “almost” the champion of the silent majority. He is simply the champion of the silent majority

Tallinn is the big prize and as mayor Edgar Savisaar will continue to be a major player in national affairs. In a highly centralised country like Estonia it means that in terms of real power and influence he is second only to Ansip.

Many people were personally upset by the result. I am sure readers know co-workers who came into the office scowling. Maybe you were one of them You have probably read stories about the campaign for Tallinners to register as residents in other parts of Estonia, of the vomit that was deliberately thrown in front of City Hall this Wednesday, of the half-joking plan to tear down Lasnamae and deprive Savisaar of support.

But things could be worse. They actually are worse in other countries.

The Centre party could be running the whole of Estonia. Actually I'll rephrase that, the Centre party “would be” running the whole of Estonia, but for one thing; the party list electoral system.

I touched on this in another article but I will go into a bit more in detail here.

There's a country not that far away where one party rules with an iron fist and has done for the past 12 years. The ruling party has an absolute mandate to do what ever it likes. The opposition can and do complain , but they can do nothing because most of the MPs are from the ruling party. This country has no written constitution so the ruling party could in theory turn the country into a totalitarian state with one piece of legislation.

The majority of people didn't vote for this party. They got only 35.3 per cent of the popular vote at the last election, only 3 per cent more than the main opposition party.

We have put up with this system in the UK because it's the way things have always been. The last time we had a government which most people voted for was 1945 when the Labour party won 51 per cent of the vote on progressive political platform.

Most English-speaking countries operate a first past-the-post system. In each constituency the candidate who gets more votes wins the seat. Other parties may come second, third, fourth all over the country and not actually win many, or any, seats.

In the US this system, which they inherited from its mother country, is the reason why there are only two parties. In Britain there are three parties, but in practice more like two and a half. At each election we have a Mexican stand-off with two adults and a midget. The midget always loses.

In Estonia seats are allocated to parties on the bases of the proportion of votes that they got. This system encourages lot of parties, political deal-making and coalition governments as we see.

But here's the rub, the electoral system in Estonia was designed to stop people like Savisaar. And stop him it will. One of the purposes of proportional representation is to prevent populist leaders, promising bread and circuses sweeping to power. We can call it the tyranny of the silent majority .

The party list system in Estonia, also called the d'Hont system, was invented by American founding father Thomas Jefferson. It's used for congressional apportionment. Jefferson hated demagogues and populist leaders.

Thanks to PR in order to get leadership of the nation, Savisaar needs to work with other parties. He knows that.

Last week Savisaar offered a collaborative agreement to the other mayoral candidates. The offer was rejected. For once the cynics are wrong, I believe Savisaar is for real. He really did want the other candidates to sign the document. He must have known the offer would be ignored but he thought it was worth a try. It also explains his overtures to the People's Union of Estonia this week.

You'd think that after such a triumph Saavisar would get on with the business of running Tallinn, safe in the knowledge that at least in the capital he has a popular mandate.

Not a bit of it, he is thinking ahead to 2011. He likes to be mayor but he wants to be Prime Minister. More accurately he craves to be Prime Minister

Here is a prediction. In the months and years to come as the 2011 looms, you can expect more of the same. The Centre party will keep making public offers of co-operation with other parties and the other parties will continue to rebut them. Unless one of the other parties caves in, it will build into a crescendo.

You can sure that if the Centre party gets the most votes in the next General election, Savisaar will accuse them of being undemocratic, if he still has no deal.

Certainly PR has it’s flaws. It means people are not voting for individual candidates. It means that people with no credentials or background, other than a skill for brown-nosing, get elected. It encourages a culture of political deal-making behind closed doors. It makes political parties put forward candidates who are young and attractive, but have no intention of serving in public office.

I won't go in detail about the Centre party campaign, enough has been written about it already. I'll simply say it was crass, unscrupulous and wrong.

Through this campaign Savisaar may have succeeded in doing the impossible. He has alienated his opponents even more than they were already alienated. He might just have scuppered any chance of co-operation between his party and other parties and therefore his own chance of getting what he craves..

After he triumph over the Romans at the battle of Heraclea the Greek general Pyrrhus is reputed to have said: “One more victory like that and we won't need any more defeats.”

In the months and years to come people may look back on the Centre Party's triumph at these elections and decide that it was a pyrrhic victory.


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