The ideological orientation of the parliamentary parties

The Reform Party propagates classical liberal values in its programme, such as the individual’s freedom, opportunities for choice and his priority over the state, an open liberal market economy, low taxes and a flexible labour market. Typically for liberals, it does not pay much attention to social policy. True, while in government the Reform Party has vigorously increased family benefits and propagated the harmonising of work and family life. Regeneration of the population is of primary significance for the Reform Party in the context of the labour market and economic competitiveness. On this basis it sees as permissible a degree of immigration which compensates for the lack of relevant specialists on the Estonian labour market.

The People’s Union is markedly different to the Reform Party in that it supports moderate nationalism and conservatism and primarily represents the interests of agricultural producers. According to its convictions, the state should preserve its own role in strategic sectors of the economy, control foreign trade and pursue a flexible taxation policy (graduated income tax, regional tax concessions, excise duties and extra tax on luxury goods). In social policy, the ideal is the continental European model of social dialogue and social insurance, but on the question of sexual equality the People’s Union is more advanced than the classical Bismarckianism. The People’s Union has much in common with the Centre Party, but its firm support for rural areas and “softer” political image make it much easier for it to find allies.

The Fatherland Union is a party supporting nationalist and Christian Democratic values. It favours a strong family policy, seeing the rearing of children primarily as a function of the home and family. It would strictly control immigration, and it emphasises a strong position for Estonian language. At present the Fatherland Union’s economic policies are weakly formulated, as dist8nct from earlier periods, when the party was led by Mart Laar. Nowadays the party has distanced itself form the neo-liberal reforms of Laar’s time, and its programme states baldly that it does not support neo-liberalism.

Res Publica declares its world-view to be “caring conservatism”, but classical conservative values are not to be found in the party’s programme or its political decisions. For example, Res Publica has consistently propagated the idea of the so-called simple state, which means a shrinkage in government expenditure and apparatus, and is more characteristic of liberalism than of conservatism. It also espouses anti-conservative positions on the economy (increasing women’s employment rate, promoting flexible post-modern forms of employment, a simple and uniform taxation policy, sexual equality) and family policy (day-care centres, a labour market for the aged, support for single parents). In the social sphere, Res Publica stresses the importance of an anti-poverty policy, which again is a trait of classical liberalism, rather than conservatism. Compared with the Reform Party, Res Publica’s liberalism is more moderate or social, which puts this party’s standpoint closer to the Centre Party, and on the rhetorical level it is at times like the Christian Democratic Fatherland Union.

The Centre Party has often let itself be placed wrongly on the left-right scale on account of its forceful election propaganda. It makes populist appeals to the party’s basic support group (pensioners, people with lower than average income, the Russian community). For example, since the restoration of independence the Centre Party favoured a softer citizenship policy for the resident non-Estonians. On the basis of the party’s programme one could claim that it is a mixture of social liberalism and Christian democracy. For example, the party favours prosperity through economic growth, social citizenship together with individual enterprise, state support for small and medium-sized businesses, the decentralisation of power and the strengthening of local government. Left-wing traits can certainly be noted in the requirement of graduated income tax and the preference for social services over transfer of income.

The Social Democratic Party is oriented toward the Scandinavian Left, which has remained much more traditional than Labour in Britain or the other supporters of the “Third Way”. The basic values of the SDE are equality, justice, solidarity and the welfare state in the style of the Nordic “people’s home”. The labour market should be regulated as a social partnership with collective wage bargaining. The Social Democrats are the only party to place importance on the social protection of the unemployed, whereas the other Estonian parties are oriented toward employment levels. It is quite a “pure-style” labour party. The labour market and labour relations here have not experienced the mass unemployment of the West or the era of trade unionism, so the demands that arise form those do not find wide support in Estonia.

In order to get a proper picture of the tendencies and positions of the parties one has to distinguish a party’s policy documents, ideological rhetoric and actual implementation of policy. In so-called “real politics” the ideological differences are smaller; often broad-based coalitions apply policies which may be either left- or right-wing in orientation. Such a pattern can also be observed in present-day Europe, where measures influenced by the “Third Way” are even applied by right-wing governments.

In the ideological self-definition of the nation there is a striking preponderance of supporters of a centrist platform. According to public opinion polls conducted in different years, 40-50% of people define themselves as “centrist” on the left-right scale. At the same time there is a fair proportion (30-40%) of people who are unable to choose their own ideological preference. If in the nineteen-nineties it was possible to ascribe this large proportion of the uncommitted to the infancy of democracy and the parties, today it is rather due to disappointment in the parties and alienation from their policies.

Undoubtedly one can see the convergence of the s4elf-definitions of Estonians and non-Estonians as a positive trend. Nevertheless leftist position continue to be more popular among non-Estonians, and at the same time their foreign policy preferences reveal the influence of Russia and the Kremlin.

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