If 2007 was the year of the unruly Tallinn adolescent, and 2008 was the year of the suddenly unemployed construction worker, 2009 may very well prove to be the year of the disgruntled pensioner in Estonia.
As previously mentioned, this is a year of two elections: the elections for European Parliament in June, followed by municipal elections in October.
Soon after the new year had been celebrated with caution from the Estonian President, Estonia's political parties were jockeying to draw first blood.
The scandal of the month belongs to the activities of Minister of Social Affairs Maret Maripuu from the Reform Party who has been criticized for her inability to fix an IT glitch that deprived state support to pensioners for months.
The Center Party is leading an effort to force Maripuu to step down, while the Social Democrats, who have also criticized Maripuu's performance in the past but are part of the ruling government, have taken a 'wait and see' approach. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip has defended Maripuu, but said it will take some time to sort out the ministry. Perhaps he thinks that Maripuu's departure would be a trial run for his own.
This of course takes us back to the March 2007 parliamentary elections, in which Ansip's Reform Party scored a very narrow victory over Edgar Savisaar's Center Party. Reform won 31 seats in the 101-member body, while Center took 29 seats. The conservatives, IRL, won 19 seats, SDE took 10, and the Greens and agrarian People's Union took 6 seats apiece.
Reform had been in the ruling government with the Center Party since April 2005, when Ansip took over as PM. After the '07 elections it was believed among the Keskerakondlased that Ansip would flirt with the more ideologically similar IRL party, with whom it has always had a fractious relationship, but ultimately choose to partner with Kesk because it already was in the government and it would be easier to manage a two party "grand coalition" than a menage a trois of conservatives, liberals, and social democrats.
When Ansip deprived IRL leader Mart Laar of the coveted foreign ministry, the Keskid assumed that this would end the negotiations with Reform and that Ansip would come runnin' back to his old pal Savisaar. That didn't happen. Instead, Urmas Paet kept his post as FM, and Laar instead took no position in the government, deciding to play the role of party elder instead. The Center Party suddenly found itself in opposition -- and they were actually favored to win the '07 election.
Ever since that moment, the Keskid have been laying the ground for their return in the '09 election season. With most analysts predicting that economic growth will return to Estonia sometime in early 2010, the time would be ripe to seize power by September in order to take credit for the expected uptick in '10, riding that to electoral success in the 2011 parliamentary elections.
What is Keskerakond's strategy? Lay the economic crisis at the feet of IRL and Reform. It's their die-hard idelogical subservience to liberalism that has gotten Estonia in this predicament, and only Edgar Savisaar with his common sense and empathy for the common man can steer Estonia out this crisis.
Savisaar's opening salvo was a high-tech Christmas card where one could pick their name from a list and watch a paternal, pre-recorded Savisaar standing beside a bonfire in the forest say something like, "Saamuel, be a good person and take some hay to the animals, and remember to give Christmas presents to the children this year."
That was Savisaar showing his solidarity for the common man. Now comes the attack on Reform and IRL to paint them as out-of-touch liberal elitists (with an entirely different meaning from the 'limosine liberals' of American political discourse) who are too busy giving the people bread and circus of the erection and removal of monuments than to even pay the poor pensioners (most of whom live within a cat's whisker of abject poverty) on time.
In Tallinn, nearly every bus stop shows a large green poster blaming Reform and IRL for the souring of the Estonian economy. There is also a website advertised for those increasing numbers of discontented voters, www.protest2009.eu.
Politically, it is interesting that Kesk has decided not to blame SDE. Perhaps they harbor fantasies of forming a ruling center-left coalition with Finance Minister Ivari Padar's party. The only problem is that SDE has said that they would not be willing to partner with Kesk if Savisaar is the PM. And even if Kesk, SDE, the Greens, and the People's Union pool their votes, they'd still only have 51 seats in the Riigikogu -- not exactly the 60 seat majority that the current coalition has.
I can only guess is that Center intends to play hard and drive Reform's poll numbers into the gutter, delegitimizing Ansip's '07 win. It's already working. 35 percent of those interviewed in a December poll favored Center, compared to 29 percent for the ruling Reform party.
Those who ridicule the Center Party as the party of the marginalized Russophones might have a hard time explaining those numbers. Non-ethnic Estonians make up only 30 percent of the population in total, and a third of them hold foreign passports. No, there are plenty of Estonians who support Härra Savisaar's party -- among them the disgruntled pensioners who are increasingly featured on the covers of local newspapers, but also ... prepare to be shocked ... the local business community.
In the past, the business community -- a good deal of it controlled by Swedish or Finnish capital -- approved of Estonia's devotion to liberal economic policies. Having grown up under the thumb of nordic social democracy, these entrepreneurs welcomed Estonia into the fold and lobbied for its EU membership -- perhaps hoping to export Estonia's policies back into Finland or Sweden one day. These days, though, you can see them lining up behind former PM and businessman Tiit Vähi, whose critiques of the Ansip government are regularly published in the Swedish-owned business daily Äripäev.
And so it could be that an odd coalition of disgruntled pensioners and angry businessmen may eventually bring about a change of administration in Stenbock House in 2009. I am not sure how to prepare myself for a possible Savisaar administration, but I am starting to think I should brush up on my knowledge of life of another wily patrician from the center: Urho Kekkonen.