The first local elections after the administrative reform will be held in autumn, and the last-minute firestorm of mistrust is raging across Estonia. The political tensions that keep piling up month after month suggest that this year’s elections will be different from all previous ones.

No one denies that the campaign period has long been underway and the work to get voters’ attention has been going on for some time. In the municipality of Põhja-Sakala, major political parties announced their number ones last winter, citing political instability – the municipality has had three different mayors in four years.

There is a perfectly logical reason for the attempts to seize power just before the elections. Once in power, it’s much easier to be in the public eye, leadership candidates get more media coverage, stand out with their good and useful deeds, and constantly meet potential voters in the course of their daily work. All this gives a much better starting point for the campaign period compared to the opposition.

Secondly, the presidential elections will take place just before the local elections. To date, political parties have failed to agree on a suitable presidential candidate, so it’s uncertain whether the new president will be elected in the Riigikogu or whether the decision will be left to the electors. However, the representatives of the parties currently in power in each municipality will be the electors – and this provides another argument for improving one’s positions.

Large mergers created more instability

On the whole, it seems that the most politically unstable municipalities are those where the administrative reform merged the city that was the local centre with the surrounding rural municipalities, as was done in Pärnu, Jõhvi and Valga. Even years after the administrative reform, urban and rural areas are still unable to find common ground on all fronts and suspect each other of grabbing resources. When the merger money ran out, so did the spirit of cooperation.

Political curiosities and tragedies inevitably occur in the midst of the general instability. For example, the municipality of Saarde was left without any leaders at all when an agreement was reached on mistrusting the old leaders, but not on the appointment of new ones. The Rõuge Council, however, decided to mistrust the municipality mayor who was on parental leave, inevitably raising the question of how it’s possible to lose trust when you are away from the office and at home with your child? Surely not by becoming a mother?

Compared to the 2017 local elections, there have been other changes apart from pushing the municipal boundaries together. The triumphs of Trump and the EKRE in the meantime have also taught local politicians to turn up the heat on their campaigns. It’s true that much more effort is needed to catch the attention of voters in larger municipalities. Being a good person, well-known and respected in your community is no longer enough to get elected into the council.

Social media took the limits

As physical meetings and events disappeared in the corona year, political action moved to social media, where self-censorship is much more relaxed. For some reason, it’s not a sin in social media to attack on a personal level, to spread misinformation or to lie to the public, which people would probably be much more cautious about when standing face-to-face voters and opponents alike. It’s still too early to predict what the coronavirus situation will be like in autumn and whether restrictions will be reinstated, but social media will clearly play a more important role than ever in the upcoming elections.

There are other changes as well. For example, the ban on political outdoor advertising, which had been in place for some time and no longer allowed candidates to actively advertise on the election day, was lifted. Come autumn, we’ll probably be bombarded to unconsciousness with election advertising, and those who go to the polling station to vote on the spot will have to pass through rows of party tents on their way there, with candidates frantically trying to get the last votes.

The competition will be even fiercer than before, with a larger number of candidates in the merged municipalities vying for a smaller number of council seats. Although the councils of local authorities formed after the administrative reform had a relatively large composition in the name of the representation of the merged regions, reducing the number of council members is now being considered in many places in order to reduce administrative expenses. This means that every candidate has to outdo more of his or her competitors and put in much more effort to get a place in the autumn.

Loss of continuity

What will this political turmoil and cockfight entail? Perhaps most importantly, in the maelstrom of constant changes of power, the continuity that is crucial for the development of local governments is lost. And if all the strength is spent on political infighting, there won’t be enough left to deal with the real issues. Secondly, the fact that the state does not trust local authorities, a concern that existed before the administrative reform, is exacerbating. This directly undermines the capacity of local authorities to mobilise the necessary funding, carry out large-scale developments and participate in policy-making.

Thirdly, people just get tired. Smarter politicians who can do other things are stepping down, good people are reluctant to stand, and voters look elsewhere in embarrassment. This fatigue and boredom will probably be reflected in the autumn turnout. Although Norstat conducted a poll in May showing that as many as 75 percent of respondents plan to participate in the local elections in October, life has shown that voter enthusiasm drops significantly by election day. For example, in Valga County, only about half of the population with the right to vote participated in the last local elections.

While the aim of gaining power should be to exercise it in the best possible way, the methods of gaining power often lead to completely opposite consequences. Power for the sake of power, with nothing good coming out of it, is not worth very much. As one member of the Valga Municipal Council aptly wrote to his colleagues in the midst of the most heated political battle: “If someone wants power, I have a Radiotehnika amplifier, it works, so you can turn up the power. I’m giving it away for free.”