Formation of parties and development of organisations

The genesis of the party system in a society in transition is different in several ways from the development of the Western European party landscape. The prime mover in the later case is the significant social division (between town and country, between religious groups, between classes, the birth of a nation-state), from which varying ideologies spring forth. In the post-communist countries the trend is rather the reverse - what brought people together were ideological and philosophical principles, and it was only years later that economic and social status started to affect party affiliation.

Another significant difference between Western Europe and post-communist Eastern Europe is the speed of the development of the party system. In the west this process took about half a century. In Estonia, as in other post-communist countries, it took about a decade, from the end of the eighties to the end of the nineties.

After the collapse of the totalitarian regime, numerous parties formed in Estonia. By spring 1990 there were 31 parties registered in Estonia. The reason for this was the dissolution of the social movements which had played a major role in the political mobilisation brought about during the period of the "singing revolution". Mass-scale political activity receded and the activists in the movement started to form parties. The popular movements of the end of the eighties became the basis of practically all the strongest parties in Estonia today. The fusion in 1995 of the Fatherland Popular Coalition Party (established 1992) and the Estonian National Independence Party (established in 1988 as the first independent party on the entire territory of the USSR) into the Fatherland Union had its roots in the Estonian Heritage Protection Society and the Congress of Estonia. The Centre Party (established 1991) and the Social Democratic Party (established 1990) gathered the most active members of the former People's Front into their fold. Apart from these two, there were parties and political groupings with few members and modest influence, and these tended to rely more on personal contacts between their members than clearly formulated ideological programmes.

A greater unification of political parties started in the mid-nineties - it became clear that the small parties were unable to talk to the electorate, and this fostered the grouping of the parties who were closer to them. Before and after the 1995 parliamentary elections, for example, two parties that are now in parliament, the Reform Party and the Fatherland Union, were on the way toward merging.

Parties representing the Russian-speaking community have not united even today. At the same time they can no longer claim to represent the interests of the entire Russian-speaking electorate, since there has never been a sense of a single unified nation as a motive for the voters' behaviour. They entered the political arena somewhat later, since according to the constitution only citizens of the Republic of Estonia may belong to a political party. Therefore some time passed before there was a sufficiently large community of naturalised Russian-speaking citizens. Although several attempts have been made to unify the parties representing the Russian minority, none of them has succeeded. Frequent organisational rearrangements, unsteady internal electoral pacts and an unprincipled coalition strategy have driven wedges into the support base for the Russian parties. In 2005 there were 4 Russian parties on the register, each of them having less than 1% public support. In all likelihood some of these parties will vanish in the next few years, and some will remain, but without any political effect. Some Russian politicians have gone over to the stronger Estonian parties. Whereas initially they tended to join the Reform Party and the Centre Party, nowadays there are non-Estonians in the membership of all the parties.

Compared with the mid-nineteen-nineties, the parties are now considerably stronger organisationally. According to law a party must have at least 1000 members in order to be registered. The bigger parties (The People's League, the Centre Party, Res Publica) have memberships that exceed this limit four- or sixfold. The parliamentary parties have nationwide activities; the party structure, the leadership mechanism and the competence of their local organisations are clearly set out in their founding documents. At the same-time the activity from the top downward continues to predominate. Some local and district organisations are not active and do not take part in forming the party's political line. One reason for the uneven division of activity is evidently the lack of experience in civic democratic culture. In the course of a few years the parties became the main agencies of a struggle for power and electioneering, for which the social functions - developing social debate, civic inclusion and the like - have unfortunately been neglected.

One indicator of the organisational strengthening of the parties is their increased budgets and growing expenditure on election campaigns. In the 2002 parliamentary elections the parties spent a total of 80 millions, whereas for the municipal election campaign in 2005 they spent nearly 50 millions. True, even here there are very great differences between the leading parties and the smaller ones. Whereas the Centre Party and the Reform Party spend over 15 millions on their campaigns, the parties outside parliament spend less than a million. As Fig. 2.1 shows, the gulf in party expenditure has continued to grow over the years.

By the beginning of the 21st century the Estonian party landscape had more or less fully developed, and no serious rearrangements have taken place in the past few years. There has been just one exception in the process: at the end of 2001, the right-wing political union Res Publica, after a decade of activity, decided to reorganise itself into a party. The right-of-centre populist party going under the same name quickly gained in popularity, gaining a victory in the 2003 parliamentary elections (28 seats in the 101-seat parliament and the prime minister's post). Two years later the party was implicated in scandals involving several of the party's leaders, and because of this public relations disaster has slumped considerably in popularity, getting only 8.5% of the vote in the 2005 local elections.

At the end of 2005 there were 17 active parties registered with the Companies Register, and it is not likely that any new parties will appear on the scene in the next few years. Efforts have been made to set up a Green Party, but so far these have not resulted in any official party activity (registration).

Parties registered with the Estonian Companies Register, December 2005
Parties represented in parliament
Members
Fatherland Alliance 2941
Social Democratic Party 3000
Estonian Centre Party 7717
Estonian Reform Party 4363
People`s Union of Estonia 9013
Res Publica Party 5555
Parties not represented in parliament Members
Estonian Independence Party 1039
Estonian Christian People`s Party 2167
Democrats - Estonian Democratic Party 1003
Estonian Pensioners` Party 1366
Estonian Party of the Left 1078
Republican Party 1080
Russian Baltic Party in Estonia 9
United People`s Party of Estonia 1602
Russian Party on Estonia 1214
Russian Unity Party 1314

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