03 March 2007

Estonian Political Laboratory

There is a parliamentary election in Estonia, the fifth since independence from the Soviet Union and the first after the country entered the European Union. As a new democracy in a small country, Estonia has been a laboratory for political experiments, in great part due to our colleague Rein Taagepera, now professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine. In this Blog, Taagepera has already been mentioned (in the post ‘Academics Entering Politics’, October 22, 2006, available on the right of this column) and he will be it again for more academic contributions soon.

Rein Taagepera had fled from occupied Estonia with his family in 1944, when he was 11. He eventually became a political scientist in the United States. But he kept the family, social circles and language connections with his natal country, although the Soviet rulers did not permit him to return for a very long time. His first trip back to Estonia was in 1987, when he was 54. He soon became very famous with his radio talks and writings. I witnessed this when I visited Estonia in October 1991, a few weeks after independence and a few weeks before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, invited to an international meeting of experts to discuss some problems facing the new country. As a kind of VIPs, the colleagues in the meeting we were given a brochure with encyclopedic information on The Baltic States; it was all anonymous, except for a two-page introduction signed by “Rein Taagepera, USA”, apparently the worldwide most famous Baltic figure at the time (not, thus, a general, a poet or a sportsman, as it could have been in a more conventional country, but a political scientist!).

The new Estonian Constitutional Assembly approved that the rule for the first parliamentary election would be Single Transferable Vote, which permits voting for individual candidates and party’s proportional representation at the same time. This was “very much in line with recommendation by Taagepera and Shugart [in the book Seats and Votes, 1989]; thus, Estonia was the only part of the Soviet empire which completely gave up on the Soviet-style majority rule in single-seat districts”, in Taagepera’s own words.

Our man went again in Estonia in July 1992, with his wife in California, and the very same day he arrived he was asked to run for president. It was less than two months before the election, but center-left candidate Rein Taagepera got a respectable 23 percent of votes, which was critical to prevent the former communist candidate from winning a majority. In the second round in the just elected parliament, a more liberal candidate was appointed. Taagepera, however, left the party a couple of years later, due "to the egocentric opportunism of its leader".

For the latest election, in 2003, Taagepera, who was still spending half a year in California, became the founding chair of a new Estonian political party, 'Res Publica'. Amazingly, a mere 15 months after its formation, the party carried the parliamentary election with 25 percent of votes and formed a coalition government with the prime minister from its ranks. Taagepera says he adopted a winning equation for a new party competing in elections:

Prospect of success =
Membership x Financial Support x Visibility

Eventually, Taagepera also left the party he had founded –not easy for a serious political scientist to keep with the turnabouts of daily politics, apparently. For the current election, his former party merged with a conservative group to form 'Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica'. The polls forecast it in a third position. But the first seems likely to go to the Center Party, the one for which Taagepera was the presidential candidate fifteen years ago.

See Taagepera’s most recent chronicle of his political experiments:


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