Editorial: no pay, no say

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Today’s Postimees provides an overview regarding money coming to political parties during first three months of the year – as membership fees and donations, as well as drawn from state coffers. Glaringly, percentage of membership fees continues as pittance of sum total.

For Reform and IRL, fees provide over hundred times less that state support and private donations. For Centre and Soc Dems, the difference is in the dozens. Meanwhile, in EKRE and the Free – during election campaign and even before vocally critical of others regarding neglect of fees – things aren’t too different. True, of the smallest-by-far membership of the Free, close to a fifth did pay their fees. In other parties, it was a percent or two ... 

In a word: lion’s share of party members doesn’t put a penny into the organisations representing their world view. As most of the mass-party members aren’t politically active in other ways either (not even participating in internal elections), they consequently have no other input than just featuring in the lists of these organisations and by presumably casting their votes at local/general elections in favour of their own. Hence the question: in Estonia, what does party membership really mean? Is this a kind of non-obligatory statement of support, and that just at the moment of joining the (written) ranks?

For party chiefs, the large yet mostly passive membership is a way to flex their muscles: see what a crowd we have gathered behind our trademark, ideas and star politicians! And that’s all the essence there is. The apologies – like: it’s not in the interests of democracy to scare people away from governing by high membership fees – sound outright ridiculous to the backdrop of actual passivity of the members. As things stand, they do not expect – to say nothing about requiring – even the minimal financial input from members; in return, the latter are not eagerly expected to participate in distribution if posts inside the party, in local governments or on state level. 

By definition, the more one inputs into an organisation, the stronger the tie he feels. One paying membership fee will be bolder in demands towards the organisation and will perhaps be more likely to participate in general assembly of the party, say, where leaders are elected and goals set.

As boards of parties are still reluctant to collect membership fees, we may conclude the organisations lack genuine will to stir internal democracy in the organisations. For the leaders, it’s probably more convenient and secure to manage the money gotten from state budget and collect large donations, than having to worry about members en masse showing up at general assemblies and proceeding to take some uncontrollable decisions.