United Estonia and political change in Estonia

In Spring 2010 a populist movement entered the Estonian political scene. It was called United Estonia and it promised change, justice and land for everyone. The members of the movement were mostly actors from the theatre NO99 known for its rather modern forms of expression and social criticism. For six weeks the movement fueled the media circus and kept analysts and politicians speculating whether the new force will win the next elections due in 10 months.

United Estonia started exposing some widespread methods of spin of Estonian parties in series of critical Youtube videos called “Voting schools”. The videos were based on real life anonymous interviews with party members and advisers and have been later referred to as “realistic” (see below).

While being critical of the methods, the movement also used these same methods. For example it used a specific populist tactic by avoiding any specific framing. When addressed as a political force, the movement denied being that and called themselves “just actors” and when referred to as actors, they called themselves “political movement”.

United Estonia also held a series of campaigns in order to get media coverage for themselves. For example they secretly ruined their own posters that were exhibited in the center of Tallinn. This ensured ongoing media coverage and growing tensions.

On 7th of May United Estonia arranged a “party conference” where 7500 ticket buying people gathered for one-time megashow. Many of them expected the birth of a new party. The show peaked with a fascist style entance of the “party leader” followed by  obviously rigged elections of the new party functionaries.

At the same time the crowds were explained, how and what was done and how they were manipulated. In what some called an anticlimax, United Estonia gave away its symbolic power in the final speech where the “party leader” asked everyone to stop being silent participants in politics.

After the show, United Estonia held its last press conference ever where it exposed all the methods it had used. I as one of the authors of the show published a complete account of all the activites and methods in the blog called Memokraat. After that United Estonia has not given any comments on any issues in Estonian politics.

There has been a lot of discussion in Estonia about the impact and legacy of the United Estonia and in a way the authors of the show have also been in doubt about what really happened. There are still some measurable outcomes, including hundreds of articles in media, references in popular culture and politics itself.

A year later general elections were held in Estonia and after that United Estonia was not the center of public discussions any more. Quite unexpectedly the topic resurrected in the beginning of 2012 when hundreds of people came to streets to protest against ACTA and as Elver Loho, one of the leaders of Estonian Internet Community, said that the creation of the Estonian Internet Community was inspired by United Estonia.

Even later that year a young Reform Party politician Silver Meikar wrote an article where he exposed some illegal money laundering schemes in the Reform Party. He got into an angry confrontation with his fellow party members and was expelled from the party. At the same time about 6 people from his party and altogether 20 people backed his statements. This created a long lasting stand-off and ended with thousands of people coming to streets protesting against “dishonest politics”.

After about 6 months of denial and resistance, the minister of justice who was accused to be the mastermind of the money laundering scheme, was finally forced to step down.

Meikar later told media that he had been motivated by United Estonia, especially its “Voting school project”. “I watched it and it was exactly as I knew it was,” he said.

A public harta was created by 17 public figures that called for alternative institution for discussing the status of Estonian democracy. In few days the harta got 17 000 signatures. The president of Estonia agreed to lead the process and so a People’s Assembly project was called into action. People’s Assembly is a crowdsourced project where people can make amendments for 5 different laws, the proposals will be analyzed by experts and when discussed by 500 randomly selected citizens during a discussion day. The resulting proposals will then be sent to the parliament for further discussion.

As a conclusion, one can say that United Estonia has had some impact over three years. At the same time many people have expressed their regret that United Estonia did not go to the politics. For the authors of the project going to politics would have been a rather impossible idea, because the main philosophy of the project was to remain citizens outside the party politics and demand to be heard at the same time. Besides that, it would not have been possible to enter the political scene as a new and pure force by starting with propaganda and lies.

What lessons can be learned from the experience of United Estonia?

First of all, it is clear that in the age of Wikileaks, information flows more freely, much less information remains secret and this leads to more failed promises. The image of a responsible Statesman is more difficult to keep up.  As the public realises that politicians and many other institutions in general do not live up to promises, the disappointment will keep growing for a while and in their search for alternatives, voters may turn towards whatever forces seem to be outsiders or just more authentic.

It is ironic that this authenticity is seeked in performers like Clown Grillo of Italy or populists like Timo Soini of Finland and it can well be that authenticity will never be found in them either, because  even in the age of information technology and open data, the publics remain as manipulative as ever. New political forces face the same temptations as the old ones and this applies to Clown Grillo as well.

For example, the members of United Estonia have confessed that by participating in the process they became more demagogical in their own lives, some said that they needed a serious “detoxification” and staying away from civilization in order to regain their peace of mind. In short, they became the same thing that they were opposed to.

A ready made road to the future of democracy does not exist. There will be no miracles,  there is no architect with a master plan, but there is still way to build that road piece by piece and using the cooperative models and networks. A lot of attention has to be paid to the protocol of new networks, because technology itself does not carry democratic values, it has to be deployed in moderation.

In 2010 United Estonia ended its existence with a sentence: “The world does not change in a day, it changes every day”. The view that resembles Karl Popper’s idea of piecemeal social innovation stressed that everyday participation are needed from citizens and there is no one who can do it for them. The ideas of democracy need to be translated to our moder technological reality, one day at a time.

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So what started as a mockup anti establishment party…

ended as a real thing aka misery of politics? it’s not clear how much was a premeditated experiment and where it went beyond it. the danger with exotic, eccentric figures turned real politicians is IMO when they start to believe that they’re called for by the public, that they are sorely needed as saviors. And who wouldn’t become infatuated with this?

Daniel, I’m more curious how do young Estonians relate to the Internet community or Pirate Party, and if there’s hope from that direction, especially Estonia being seemingly open to new political tools (eg your Evoting system in place for more than 10 years now)?

Changing ourselves day by day

United Estonia has obviously captured the best of guerrilla campaigning, advertising and performance theatre, a kind of political movement version of the “Yes Men”.but situated in a local context.

From the immediate popularity they had, what was the context that meant they could fill a political gap?

It’s not surprising that a group that originated from the theatre & arts scene developed the tactics they used and why they were so successful at campaigning. As someone said “we campaign in poetry and govern in prose”. Other examples across the sea in Finland with the “Complaints Choirs” show how creative techniques can be used to stimulate political engagement as they embody the behaviours that digital technology reminded us we’d lost without being dependent on the tools themselves.

The members of United Estonia who admitted they became more demagogical in their own lives maybe explains that they were caught up with how popular their methods were that the period they were in the spotlight was so intense that people believed (maybe even themselves) that they could change the world in a day, rather than make small changes every day.

Changing your behaviour and developing a new habit takes 66 days, we need activities that dedicate at least this amount of time to slowly creating new forms of everyday political engagement :wink:

Of time bombs and self-preservation

Daniel, this is a great story. Thanks for sharing.

I am impressed that these guys actually dissolved – it seems that “provisional” organizations have a way to entrench and become permanent. This might seem counterintuitive – if there was a need for something like UE in Estonian society (and in many others, as you point out, including my native country, Italy), why dissolve it and destroy the capacity that had been built? In fact, according to your account, capacity was not destroyed, but embedded in the personal experience, world view and toolkit of the individuals that participated in it. This seems to force a more problematic approach to how to carry forward UE’s vision: some people go into politics, others into civil society activism, others still retreat to detox themselves from power logics. This is way healthier than saying that the legacy of UE lives on in a formal organization called UE, and prone to all sorts of capture, distorted incentives and perversion of what Charlie Stross calls corporate politics.

For some time now, in a different context, I have been obsessed with “time bombs” on government projects. I try to design one into everything I do, to prevent capture and entrenchment when the founders move on and something originally new and cool is “bureaucratized” by the host structure. Of course I am not against institutionalization (Edgeryders itself, originally a Council of Europe project, has spinned off into a civil society initiative), it’s just that I think it should be a little hard: there should be a natural selection process that only keeps things worth keeping.

I wonder if there are any other examples of provisional-by-design political organizations out there?

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network governance

Dear Alberto, a very good friend of mine will write her master thesis about “network governance” and is looking for a supervisor. Do you have an idea who is an expert in this field, has a phd and a teaching position. Thanks very much for any ideas, Caroline

Try this

He’s quite senior: google Fernando Vega-Redondo at EUI, in Florence.

great project, hard roles.

I really enjoyed reading this I’m impressed by the tactic, the infiltration and the fact that they stuck to their word, whilst embodying the opposite. Appropriating the thing you wish to comment on is a fine skill, and one with great power. Art and activism is always searching for the sweet spot there, and it seems that this project may have had a good amount of that! the legacy being galvanized in the moment and consciousness of those who experienced it, and not left to corrupt itself or become bastardised over time.  It reminded me also of the yes men. But with different problems.

I’m not at all surprised that the experience of living in that life had a negative impact on the people involved. I wonder  sometimes that perhaps people don’t consider the psychological damage that power brings, its easy to hate on political figures, what with all the lying and destructive behavior, but we all are/ can be governed by basic physiological patterns. There have been many studies to indicate that deception and thinking your above the law and others are side effects of entering into any powerful role. But politicians are just people perhaps they should be protected from corruption by having less power as individuals. In the uk certainly the job would attract a different kind if the pay was less.

This kind of psychological demand, also favors the compulsive liars and psychopathic/ sociopathic personality traits.

Before the media became a big influence on how we perceive individual politician’s things I imagine would have been different. I wouldn’t say better worse, common sense says we need to move with the times. social media and exposure are just going to happen, especially if we continue to have identifiable individuals as “leaders”. I know there has been a media scene for hundreds of years, but its only in recent times that we have been able to expect/ demand our leaders not only are politicians doing a job, but that they have acceptable faces, the right clothes, family life, can charm and talk their way through interviews and TV shows. I’m not sure those skills are as important as seeing the bigger issues in politics. It worries that the most charismatic will win over all. In UK there are column inches and debate time wasted criticizing what MP’s look like, this is total derailing.

Exposing the media machine, tactics, lies and backhanded techniques party’s use to get into power is very important, people need to be politically active! but I feel hopeless in the face of how the system works to encourage the bad behavior. We allow politics to be a popularity contest.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/politicians-and-the-constructed-image/10804.html

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To me the United Estonia story is a fascinating example of how traditional politics and contemporary civic movements (fueled by disillusions and expectations of citizens) cannot find a working interface between each other. United Estonia succeeded because it did not transform into a caricature of itself - a real political party, from what I understand.

In Poland we have an opposite example - a political movement led by Janusz Palikot, a former high-ranking member of the currently ruling Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) party. The movement transformed into a party in 2011 and won a surprising 10% of votes in 2011 parliamentary elections. On one hand, the party did “stretch” the political debate in Poland by introducing such issues as legalizing soft drugs, gay and sexual minority rights (and brought into the Parliament the first transgender MP, which was extraordinary in largely conservative Poland), or an anti-church stance. But it also quickly became visible that the party is very populist, lacks a real political program or a expert support. At the height of the ACTA issue, the party came into parliament in Guy Fawkes masks, but failed to have any meaningful impact in the debate otherwise. So it was ultimately a facade of an alternative political movement. Tellingly, the party was unable to chose a different name than “Palikot movement” (after its leader), confirming a “strong leader” model dominant in Polish political scene. I’m writing this to demonstrate, that while there seem to be openings for alternative approaches in every national political system, they’re not always used by an actor as smart and good-intended (as I understand from Daniel’s description) as United Estonia.

One other example comes to my mind of a transformative process. Poland has been dealing rather intensively with a range of regulatory issues related to digital technologies (including, alongside ACTA, proposals to block internet in Poland, data retention issues, copyright reform) since around 2009-2010. The most succesful process was a quasi-formal consultation mechanism called “the Dialogue group”. Controversial due to the fact that to some extent it did not have clear legitimization and representation mechanisms - but at the same time drawing into a constructive process of debate a large range of both representatives of public administration and NGOs / experts / civic society. I participated in the process firstly on the part of the government, and later as an NGO, and I think that this direct debate was crucial in solving several issues in a better rather than worse way. I’m mentioning this because I agree that the way forward is through more participatory mechanisms. Traditional, party-based politics were not present in this process, and political parties in general seem largely unable to deal, especially in an expert manner, with issues of complicated regulation of the digital reality.

It would be interesting to map these alternative entries into the traditional political system, and attempts to transform political communication towards a more participatory one, in our region. I think they’re crucial from a generational perspective, as young generations, through the experience of digital communciation, are becoming accustomed to wholly different patterns of engagement. And more and more alienated from traditional politics.

I recommend to you the “Web Kids Manifesto” written by Piotr Czerski in early 2012, at the height of the intensive debate around ACTA that took place in Poland

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There’s a pattern here!

Great input, Alek! It seems many European countries are seeing some unconventional approaches to politics going somehow mainstream, or close to it. In the Baltic region itself, well, Sweden and Germany have successful Pirate Parties, that have used very unconventional tactics (now largely imitated) to obtain an impact on the political discourse disproportionate to their electoral weight. Outside the region, in my own native Italy, another comedian and actor, Beppe Grillo (mentiioned several times by Daniel in relation to United Estonia) is leading the Five Star Movement, that has become the single largest party in the country in terms of votes.

And here’s the thing: many of these parties have problems delivering on their promise. Once elected, they seem to lose part of their magic. That happened, as you say, to the Palikot movement in Poland; and is happening right now to the Five Star Movement. United Estonia avoided ths fate by dissolving before the elections; I have not much information about the Pirate Parties – I beilieve that Michael Ickes, here on Edgeryders, is an elected official of PiratPartei Berlin and might have some insights to offer. Does this mean that the party form is no good to carry forward the issues more central to the hyperconnected “graduates without a future” of Europe?

Some answers

It is really nice to find so many valuable comments here. I am not sure that I can respond to every one at the time being, but I will bring about some more details that hopefully are useful.

  • One important aspect is that in hindsight the project looks really quite well planned, but as someone pointed out, in real life, it is not possible to see all the steps ahead. So, in the very beginning we had no idea, how we are going to pull it off, although we had the grand idea to have a big impact.  We just made a basic plan, employed different tactics on the day-to-day basis and sometimes to our own surprise, things started to get really popular. The biggest issue for the director of the big event on 7th of May was how to end it, so that the message would really be heard and at the same time so that no one would say that it was a failure. So, even a couple of days before the show, it was not clear, what will happen. For us it was pretty much a miracle that it worked out.

  • Estonia is a rather transparent country, but in 2010 you could see two things happening. The political campaign costs skyrocketed and trust in politics plummeted. At that time most of the politicians had developed somewhat arrogant positions about involving public in debates and discussions. There was one guy who said that “cultural people should be left to their own devices” meaning that some critics should not talk about things they do not know about. So, it was a time when the feeling was that public opinion does not matter in politics any more parties try to engineer the consent just when elections come. UE was to large part a protest against this situation where many publics seemed to have no voice.

  • Why didn’t we go to politics? Why didn’t we use this chance to change something from inside? Estonia has a history of new parties that come and win elections, but later turn to the caricatures of themselves. Probably the issue here is that the party system without sufficient civil society changes you so much that you will forget why you entered the system. Our belief was that in order to counterbalance the system, you need to remain outside of that. And frankly, personally we were not ready to become politicians. Add one reason - UE, starting from its name, was built as an impossible construction, we did not want to live with that.

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Crystal clear

Daniel, your reasoning is crystal clear. If anything, I wonder why comparable political movements did not do as United Estonia did… it just seems the right thing to do. Because, as I tried to point out in my other comment,

 Estonia has a history of new parties that come and win elections, but later turn to the caricatures of themselves.

you could easily substitute many countries for “Estonia”…

question on reform

“Estonia has a history of new parties that come and win elections, but later turn to the caricatures of themselves.”

from a uk perspective it would seem unbelievably exciting if ANY new party got anywhere near a serious contender for power! right now its pretty much a two party race and they are both essentially right(wing) and toatally untrustworthy. the main thing i would hope that any sort of new/ exciting or slightly radical party would do would be work on changing the system so that the options were better for the next race. ie, when they enevitably struggle and fall apart that they have paved a way for some change, some flexibility in the future.

even if its enevitable that parties who make promises will have trouble fulfilling them, or that power and global politics will render most a caracture of themselfs, it surprises me that they would immidiatley lose sight of the bigger picture. that is its not one party’s job to change everything and be the sole authour of change. but that its any party’s responsibility to try and make democracy more inclusive and easyer to access. by broadening political debate and including the voice of outside experts and citizens alike.

if there is one legacy to aim for its to help the better version of yourself in the future. there will always be better and brighter as we move forward, that is not somthing to fear. our politics fears this.

There is one difference between UK, US and many East-European countries. Estonia has four parties in the parliament and it even the ones that are in the parliament are composites of some other parties that have been merging during the years. It is easier to create new parties, people are more used to having more than two, but as to your point about changing the system, then I think there will be new forces and new ideas in politics as well, but there is some real structural problem that I can not put my finger on, there is something wrong with the feedback system and it may be so that the key to reinvent it is to be found in some combination of civil society and and network technologies.

Besides, one important debate goes over the issue what is politics? If I am not participating in party politics, am I part of politics?

Why, yes!

Without a doubt politics exists outside of party politics. In Edgeryders 1 there was some discussion around the story of Spaghetti Open Data in Italy – that’s a civil society non-organization (it’s just a Google group) that came to have a significant impact over the politics of transparency in that country. The original post is here:

http://edgeryders.wikispiral.org/hacking-change/mission_case/spaghetti-open-data-little-thing-feels-right

Since then there have been many developments, like the launch of TweetyourMEP and, subsequently (for the elections held in February), of Twitantonio. Despite being farily technical, now Spaghetti Open Data has over 500 members, many of whom are public administrators themselves, crunches on average 500+ messages a month and was able, in January 2013, to cook up an open data grassroot (and uncompromisingly high-quality) event with more than 250 registered participants on no budget – it must be some kind of world record.

spaghetti win

wow alberto missed that post on old website. brilliant stuff! :slight_smile:

Why political parties are so similar and a question

I am writing this at the end of Daniel’s inspiring presentation at #baltedge. I want to run before you this great post by Charlie Stross on why corporate politics (meaning: seeing political parties as corporate entities, not the influence of corporates on politics) results in a very narrow range of vanilla policies that don’t work. Would you (all, not just Daniel) agree?

Also, a question for Daniel. Can you post somewhere here the clips you showed us in the presentation?

Well, it all has been a great discussion, big thanks to everyone! And I agree with the comment on vanilla policies.

Here are some links fron United Estonia. I am sorry that they do not include subs for the time being, but it can be arranged later.

The entrance of the party leader:

TV ad against banks:

An example of a voting school:

We should really get those subs there…

With best,

Daniel

Thanks Daniel, I also found the Explanation Videos with Coca Cola and Chess Games. Is there any version with subtitles available? Have a good trip home and see you soon, C

Voting school with subtitles

Dear all, here is one of the voting schools with subtitles (the one with the coca cola bottle). It is actually very good, have fun!

Meanwhile, I try to upload the other stuff also with subtitles.

Daniel

Ooh thanks Daniel

Thanks for posting this Daniel. I’ve watched it over and over. OMG.