„We won!“ How Liberal Citizen Foundation (Salk) influenced the Estonian policy and parliament elections in 2023(5)
Two and half years ago Liberal Citizen Foundation (Salk) was established. Already back then one of their goals was to influence the Estonian parliament elections of 2023, so that liberal forces would get majority. And they succeeded. Eesti Ekspress talked to more than 50 people about what Salk has done and how they have affected Estonian policy.
October 6, 2014 was clear day, a little cloudy, but with a strong wind from the east. The weather was said to have been shaped all day by something in Russia. The 2023 elections to the Riigikogu are eight and a half years away.
At eleven o'clock on the evening of the same day, Daniel Vaarik, founder of the blog Memokraat, pressed the „publish“ button. He hadn't slept much. At 3 a.m., he was still making last edits in actor Risto Kübar's story „No to Abnormality“, which talked about the homophobia in Estonian society.
„The realest thing ever,“ said Tarmo Jüristo after reading through the draft. „It's J'accuse. It's Hiroshima.“
Memokraat was a small but influential blog whose readership was mostly made up of officials, journalists, politicians, younger generation entrepreneurs and so on. They had had many popular stories. „It was a place where you could say something with a long text,“ says start-up entrepreneur Sten Tamkivi. Vaarik wanted to create something that he felt Estonian media no longer had: Memokraat had to be free of ads, clicks, ideologies, divisiveness and the exclusion of certain people.
The Memokraat had to be a „somehow“ discussion group, which, in addition to his schoolmate Tamkivi, included Tarmo Jüristo, a former investment banker, among others. „We formed a little network,“ says Tamkivi, who has been connecting people in all his startups. „I believe in networks. Being part of networks is also the best guarantee of freedom in Estonia.“
Kübar's story spread immediately. At any given moment it had over 300 readers, by the evening of the same day it had reached 20 000 people. It was the most read story in Memokraat's history.
Risto Kübar didn't know much about any of this. The internet had gone down in his cosy rented apartment in Germany that very day. No Estonian politician sent him a message that day.
DATA, DATA: There are two schools in statistics. One says that the world is certain, it is just that our knowledge of it is hazy. The other says that the world itself is uncertain. Tarmo Jüristo believes the latter.
On Friday of the same week, the Civil Partnership Act was passed in the Riigikogu, with 40 votes in favour and 38 against. Siim Kiisler, then a member of the Isamaa party, told Tarmo Jüristo, sitting on the balcony of the Riigikogu, that the law that had just been voted on could not be actually fully implemented, as this would have required an absolute majority in the parliament consenting - nothing had been won. „I know,“ replied Jüristo. „I’m in it for a long term.
Four years and a month before the elections
On February 1, 2019, it snowed here and there, the wind was light and did not blow away occasional flurries. A number of Estonian start-ups, including one of Tamkivi and Wise's co-founders, Estonia's second richest man, Taavet Hinrikus, had gathered in the smaller Tallinn office.
A month earlier, he and Vaarik had sat in Tamkivi's kitchen and started talking politics. The snowballing success of the right-wing populist Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) had worried many start-up entrepreneurs already for some time. „The rise of the EKRE seemed scary and we discussed whether anything could be done,“ says Hinrikus.
They wanted to know what was going on in the head of the EKRE voter. Vaarik couldn't answer them. He picked up the phone and called anthropologist Helelyn Tammsaar. „You have to go to the people themselves, not speculate in a bubble somewhere in the capital about what's going on,“ says Vaarik.
I've always wondered if there's any way you can see inside other people's bubbles. It turns out that there is.
Four weeks later, Tammsaar and her colleagues had conducted a series of lengthy interviews with EKRE voters, and now she was presenting the results. The meeting, for which the extremely busy entrepreneurs had squeezed an hour, stretched into three. Businesses were aghast and asked to add 20% to the bill. „I've always wondered if there's any way you can see inside other people's bubbles,“ Martin Villig, co-founder of Bolt, told Tammsaar after the meeting. „It turns out that there is.“
They had just realised that EKRE voters are not crazy radicals. Sten Tamkivi still remembers a married couple who said they wanted to defend the Estonian nation to the last drop of blood - and at the same time supported accepting Syrian war refugees. „This study showed nuances,“ says Tamkivi.
Two-and-a-half weeks later, the start-ups commissioned a short film, about three minutes long, in which a well-known actress calls for participation in the Riigikogu elections. „We wanted to appeal to women with this video,“ says Tamkivi. The hope was that support for the EKRE would be lower among them, although no one was too sure. The film was made in a few days, the emotion was overwhelming, the video went viral and Vaarik went to „about 30 places“ to present the Tammsaar’s study.
In the elections EKRE gathered more votes than anyone would have expected. The entrepreneurs had no other plan. And besides, the main job needed their attention.
Three years and eleven months before the elections
14 April 2019 was a day without rain or wind. Nearly 10,000 people gathered at Tallinn's Song Festival Grounds, waving the Estonian tricolor and singing along to pop stars. This was a protest against the newly-formed government, which included the EKRE. „The event blew the steam out of the movers and shakers and others who were hit hard by the new coalition,“ says Kristi Roost, a public relations manager and one of the organisers of the event. „We acted on emotion. There was no one who was willing to commit to it and take it forward.
Three years and ten months before the elections
It was another Thursday with some protesters gathering in front of the government building. They had been here the Thursday before last and the Thursday before that, and they'll probably be here next Thursday. A few people were handing out posters from last week from their bikes. Then they stood and protested against the government.
„These protests were not organised by an organisation, but by a few volunteers,“ says Jarmo Seljamaa, one of those standing and a current member of SALK. „I don't even know who came up with the idea.“ After a while, the placards were taken under the armpits again and they went down the long stairs. As every Thursday. For how much longer, no one could say.
Two and a half years before the elections
31 October 2020 was an unusually hot day - a powerful high-pressure system over Russia's southern oblasts heated up the air even in Tallinn’s quaint little neighbourhood of cosy wooden flats, where one apartment was getting stuffy. Due to repairs to the façade, all the windows had been taped up with plastic sheeting, and because there were so many people in the room, the air started to run out despite the high ceilings, so a hole had to be cut in the sheeting to let in some fresh air.
Economist Kaspar Oja celebrated his 35th birthday. The party went smoothly. Oja poured fresh coffee from the brewer he had received for his birthday, and some of those present remember with horror that a caraway liqueur was going around, but most still drank craft beer. Only Tarmo Jüristo didn't want to. He's been a teetotaller for ten years, so he didn’t care. Besides, he had an idea he needed to talk to others about.
PROTEST: Whose idea it was to protest on regular basis against the conservative government, Jarmo Seljamaa doesn’t remember.
According to Jüristo himself, it was born in that very same cramped apartment, although he had been thinking of something similar for quite some time. It was already clear that in order to settle another government quarrel, a deal had been struck whereby a populist EKRE minister resigned in exchange for a marriage referendum in less than six months' time, in which the people would decide whether marriage should remain a union of man and wife. Jüristo has never hidden the fact that the issue is a very personal one for him - Jüristo's younger sister lives with another woman and they have three children.
At one point Jüristo told Indrek Seppo that the conservative side is equipped with money, organisations and data - the liberals have nothing but warm air.
The evening went on as they always do, until at one point Jüristo told Indrek Seppo, one of Estonia's most well-known data scientists, that the conservative side is equipped with money, organisations and data - the liberals have nothing but warm air. A platform needs to be created, well-funded and with clear objectives.
Indrek Seppo has no recollection of this proposal, although he promised to be the first backer and committed €500. „I was born in a totalitarian regime and any totalitarian expression is unacceptable to me,“ he says. „Opposing the marriage referendum was a moral imperative for me.“
The decision had been made. Then they ate the cake that Oja's friend had made for everyone. Some started to leave before midnight: there was a train to catch. The last left when the clock had barely climbed past midnight. Half an hour later, Kaspar Oja closed the hole he had cut in the sheeting and put out the lights.
A week later
Exactly one week later, Indrek Seppo’s €500 arrived, but Jüristo had already called Sten Tamkivi, then Taavet Hinrikus and finally his old golfing acquaintance Martin Villig. He wanted to know if the start-ups were willing to put up enough money to do it all properly. Enough - that's about a hundred thousand euros. They were.
„I'm all for a liberal living environment,“ says Tamkivi, „and when the social debate goes the other way, something has to be done.“ During high school, he - like several other start-up entrepreneurs - was an exchange student in the US. „I got on a plane for the first time in my life when I was in grade 11,“ says Sten Tamkivi. „I flew alone to Silicon Valley, knocked on strangers' doors and lived with them as an exchange student for the next year. The world opened up.“
According to Hinrikus, the funding was motivated by the need to find more ways to protect a liberal society that he felt was under threat. Exactly why liberal values are important to him, Hinrikus can't even say. „Diversity is better in every way,“ he says.
„At the time, supporting them seemed to make perfect sense,“ adds Villig. „Some politicians had decided to focus all of Estonia's attention on an issue that was not among the most important. And it is not right to decide upon the rights of minority in a referendum. People should have enough freedom.“
In the end, Tarmo Jüristo set his regime for the next months. What time to go to bed each night. What time to wake up. „The campaign was going to be a very intense period,“ says Jüristo. „It's easier to keep yourself in line with a set regime.“ Then he sat down and started to write down what was to become of it all.
Two weeks later
On 10 November, the high pressure system strengthened, the skies cleared and the rains subsided. As Tarmo Jüristo was walking home from a radio interview, he was stopped at the TV house by well known TV anchor Anu Välba. „I wanted to ask what would happen on the marriage refrendum,“ Välba remembers. „I'll do anything to get the right result,“ said Jüristo. Then they said goodbye.
In a few hours a press release came out that Tarmo Jüristo was stepping down as head of the think tank Praxis to create a platform to run the „No“ campaign of the liberal forces. „If one team is on the pitch, we’ll pit it with another one,“ he tells a journalist.
A few hours later
By the evening, Jüristo had received so many letters that he had to get an assistant. A doctoral student living in Helsinki said he could help with IT. A businessman wanted to help with data collection and a lawyer offered to do whatever is needed. „Everybody was very worried, the increasingly blatant right-wing populism was still a shock,“ says Marge Monko, a professor at the Estonian Academy of Arts, who offered to help with the visuals with the students.
„Things were very dark,“ says graphic designer Tajo Oja. „When something happened, everyone was waving their hands on social media, but nothing was done.“ He called Jüristo that same evening and within a couple of days, the logo for Salk was ready. Oja said it had to exude simplicity, positivity and energy. And it certainly had to be neon green, as other colours had already been taken by the political parties.
A few weeks later
On 24 November 2020, Alari Rammo was rowing on the ergometer in the gym in Tallinn’s Old Twon, and in the meantime he was refreshing the business register webpage until he finally noticed: the Liberal Citizen Foundation had been registered. He wiped the sweat off with the back of his hand and continued rowing.
In the meantime, plenty of discussions had taken place. People from the LGBT association. Siim Tuisk and Kaarel Oja from social democrats. Kristi Roost, a public relations manager. She said it was clear from the start that the whole organisation would be centred around Jüristo, who would commit to it full time. „He looked at it all with sober eyes and was ready to commit full time. It wasn't a rush job for him, it was a considered action,“ says Roost, who initially thought it would all be limited to the marriage referendum.
„We knew we had to be motivated, coordinated and well-funded,“ says political scientist Tõnis Leht, who was one of the first to join Salk. „We knew it would be difficult to win, but we mustn't make it too easy. In order to not give a signal to society: nobody gives a shit.“
YOU GET WHAT YOU ASK: Tõnis Leht knows, that the results of polls often depend from how you frame the question.
Rammo was part of those conversations, which may come as a surprise, given that for years he worked with the half-brother of Varro Vooglaid, head of the conservative foundation SAPTK [radically conservative organization - ed.], and had visited his family home dozens of times. On a couple of occasions, he even travelled to their country house, where he was served pancakes before going to bed. But not any more.
Rammo is sure that Vooglaid sincerely believes in the goodness of his actions. „Maybe he sees further than I do,“ says Rammo. „But for the life of me, I don't believe that people are happier in his world. They'd be more controllable and understandable - but not happier.“
A couple of weeks later
On 26 November 2020, late autumn weather was still eking out ten degrees - the last warm breath of the year. At late afternoon, a dozen people entered Bolt's office, with about the same number joning online. Cranes and new buildings could be seen from the windows - start-up empires were expanding.
Ongoing monitoring, research, cooperation with the media, and 'public pressure and mobilisation' were stressed, but the main tool promised to the assembled engineers was data, data, data.
Tarmo Jüristo gave a rather brief presentation. It consisted of just nine slides, on which was written in black, white and, of course, neon green, how Salk would contribute to Estonia's shift towards a secular society focused on self-expression. „This requires the ability to hold and expand strategic positions while intervening tactically,“ one slide read. Ongoing monitoring, research, cooperation with the media, and 'public pressure and mobilisation' were stressed, but the main tool promised to the assembled engineers was data, data, data.
The meeting did not last long. A few questions were asked. Jüristo quoted the last point of Karl Marx's Feuerbach Theses, according to which the aim is not to interpret the world, but to change it. Hinrikus, Tamkivi and Villig then raised their hands in support. „And the others followed suit,“ says Jüristo laconically. When the news became public later, hundreds more joined in.
„I wanted to give moral support to an enterprise whose views and way of doing things seem valuable to me,“ says Ene Paaver, a mother of four. „First and foremost, I consider it disastrous for Estonia to promote ignorance in the public space, to descend into irresponsible squabbles and banal simplification.“
When Jüristo's long-time acquaintance Raino Paron, one of Estonia's most well-known barristers, read in the newspaper about her plans to set up Salk, he offered his support the same day. „It seemed that the ruling coalition was dragging Estonia in the wrong direction and there was no light at the end of the tunnel,“ he says. „That's why Tarmo's plan seemed very necessary and in worth supporting.“
Two years and two and a half months before the elections
On 4 January 2021, it snowed for a while and then the skies cleared. A few minutes after half past one, Tarmo Jüristo opened his computer and received the results of the first survey.
How much the opinion polls influence Estonian politics in general, no one can say for sure. Most politicians say that the effect is not decisive, and that they tend to rely on 'gut feeling' when making choices. Political scientist Martin Mölder thinks this is how it’s supposed to be. „Gut feeling puts together attitudes, knowledge, reputation, history and can be much more accurate than any poll,“ he says.
Four years ago, the social democrats tried to build a cell of sociologists within the party, but according to Kaarel Oja, deputy mayor of Tallinn, it remained at the level of amateur enthusiasts and failed to produce any real results. Nor, as far as is known, does any other Estonian party employ data analysts today. At least not on their own payrolls.
Indeed, there seems to be a general belief that Isamaa has received quite thorough research in recent years through the Institute for Social Research. According to Tanel Paas, who is in charge of conducting the polls at the institute, there has been some interest in these surveys from Isamaa and occasionally from the EKRE, but „there could be more interest from the parties“, and stresses that no party has ever commissioned anything from them. Neither does Isamaa's long-time deputy chairman Tõnis Lukas confirm such alleged close ties. „There has been no indication in the party leadership that we had received any more detailed information from anywhere,“ he says.
The aim of any survey would be to change policies so that more children are born in Estonia.
However, the Institute did launch an investigation into social values and attitudes in cooperation with Parvel Pruunsild, a member of Isamaa and the party’s major donor. Pruunsild himself makes no secret of his research interest. According to him, the Institute for Social Research (which he also helps to fund) started their research in 2016, and „at that time there was still a fairly widespread perception that certain questions were not really appropriate to ask (such as concerning immigration or sexual minorities)“. The purpose of the regular surveys was simple, says Pruunsild: „To understand what people really think about things.“
Pruunsild has not commissioned the polls, but he is interested in the data because he wants to use them to reverse the trend of Estonia's falling birth rate. „The aim of any survey would be to change policies so that more children are born in Estonia,“ he says. This is primarily through Isamaa, with whose leaders Pruunsild says he has shared the data research he has received. True, probably not all of them - Tõnis Lukas' ignorance might confirm the hypothesis that only the party chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder, the secretary general Priit Sibul and a few others from Isamaa see Pruunsild's data. „The board was never informed that any research had been commissioned,“ says Siim Kiisler, a member of the Isamaa board. „But there have been meetings where it was said that 'studies show' this and that, take note.“
However, no other party has used polls so carefully. They have been ad hoc, lacking of detail, and in general lacking of what you could really call modern survey-based politics.
When Jüristo opened the data file on the marriage referendum, the first picture was ‘not very good'. „If I had to bet, I would have thought we would lose by a lot less than the available public opinion polls suggested,“ he says in his tiny office, where a set of poker cards is laid out on his desk. „But we would have lost.“
Two years and two months before the elections
On the night of 13 January 2021, it was snowing and drizzling here and there, with strong winds. A few hours after midnight, Jüri Ratas announced his resignation and it was clear that there would be no marriage referendum. When Kristi Roost heard about it early in the morning while stuck in a traffic jam, she let go of the steering wheel and started shouting for joy until a child in the next seat called her to order for road safety reasons.
Two days later, Tarmo Jüristo announced that the Salk would not disband. „We have made it clear from the start that our plans are not limited to a 'no' campaign on the referendum,“ he wrote to supporters. „Of course, we also make no secret of the fact that in the end, our goal is still marriage equality,“ he added. „Not quickly, not easily, but this is the goal we are working towards. So no, we're not going to disband. We're just getting started.“
Two years and one day before the elections
On 4 March 2021, the weather was like it always is at the beginning of March. In one of his slightly more leisurely moments, Sten Tamkivi sat down at his desk and put up a Google Sheets spreadsheet that was supposed to aggregate the people who give money to Estonian political parties - all for the first time in his life.
There had been a stigma about supporting political parties in his circles until then. „Nobody wanted to,“ says Sten Tamkivi. „Giving money meant buying a favour from the state, but our business doesn't really need official permits.“ Besides, people were busy with everything else, it was difficult to pay enough attention, as the their horizons were international. Many were not even very familiar with Estonian politics. One founder did attend a few social democrat’s fundraisers, but you still had to google the name of the party chairman.
FIRST TIME: Startup companies haven’t donated to parties before. Salk helped them to change their minds. Photo of Sten Tamkivi.
However, over the last few months it had been discussed and found that liberal parties needed to be supported financially - however in a way different than had been done so far. At the top of the Google Sheets there was a figure of 250 000 - that was the amount of euros they wanted to raise 'in the first round’.
Around a dozen start-up founders were to chip in, and each one could tick both the amount they liked and which party would receive the money. However, Salk had given their own suggestions. They had worked out a simple model that remained the same over the following years. From each round, 30 percent was to go to the Reform Party, 30 percent to the socail democrats and 40 percent to the Eesti 200, as they had the least state funding. The aim was clear: not so much to support individual parties, but to support a particular world view more broadly. „Salk made the funding of political parties legitimate,“ says Hinrikus.
The first €250,000 was raised in just a few weeks. Salk didn't tell anyone who to support and by how much, but gave those who flew in the dark clear instructions on where the support would have the greatest impact if it landed. „I made my donations according to Salk's suggested allocation,“ says Hinrikus from another airport in our networked world.
One year and 11 months before the elections
On April 17, 2021, a fair wind blew. So strong, in fact, that the sky was clear of clouds. Indrek Seppo, in a blue University of Tartu sweater, sat down at his computer and for the next four and a half hours tried to explain data analysis to the Salk crew, using the number of dogs as a working example and calling it all ‘R'.
„The 'R' is just one small detail that I can't understand in what Tarmo Jüristo is telling me. More than once a heavy sigh escapes his chest and he rolls his eyes when I ask him about data analysis. „You don't even understand what you're asking,“ he once writes.
Salk has sometimes been compared to Cambridge Analytica, whose data had a major impact on Brexit and the penultimate US presidential election, but Jüristo disagrees. „We don't use people's personal data, and we don't sell our services,“ he said. he says. „And besides, what we do today is very much more advanced.“
Every month they poll a thousand people on different topics to see what people's opinions are — and how important they are for them. But this is just the beginning. Salk is working with „multi-dimensional data“, says Jüristo, and this allows for much more sophisticated analysis than before. „Salk's dataset allows them to go into much more detail than before,“ says Riina Sikkut, the social democrat Minister of Health. For example, you can look at the opinion of elderly women in some of Tallinn's districts on deforestation and how it has changed over time. Or whether the issue of marriage for same-sex couples matters more to young Russians in Narva or low-paid men with secondary education in Pärnu.
„If I'd had these studies, I wouldn't have commissioned anything else,“ says Annika Arras, who ran successful campaigns for Reform Party for years. „You get to understand exactly who the voters are, what they want and what message to give them.“
COMMENDS THE THOROUGHNESS: The more accurate the poll, the better a party can target its messages, says Annika Arras, organizer of several campaigns. (Photos: Vallo Kruuser / Eesti Ekspress)
„That's absolutely right,“ says Jüristo, „but that's not all.“ They routinely have data where „each datapoint has 30-40 dimensions“ and with that they can „simulate the whole of Estonian society“ if necessary, but also look at things in extreme detail. And Salk doesn't even need to know what they're looking for. By using different methods and models (they routinely employ the latest methodologies taken from pre-published research articles), they can come up with something that they didn't even know to ask for in the first place.
In addition, they have built language models that look at the content of far-right portals such as Objektiiv and Uued Uudised, pick up topics and monitor how emotionally charged they are. They engage in 'psychometric dimensioning' and 'probabilistic programming' and other things that mean little to few, with the whole stream summed up by Riina Sikkut, who says: „I'm jealous of them.“
Sikkut studied econometrics at university. She is one of the few people to whom Salk started showing the results of his research right from the start. In total, there are about 30 such people in Estonia, including journalists, analysts and, of course, politicians, as well as some embassy staff, heads of some state-owned companies or media enterprises. Of the political parties, Isamaa and EKRE do not get to see the data, and the Centre Party only sees it partially. On the one hand, the sins of the past and the current chairman do not allow us to fully trust the Centre Party, but on the other hand, the Centre Party is the only party that could have the capacity to appeal to any significant extent to the EKRE voters. You can't go very wide - and there is no point, because there is a fine line of understanding. „The numbers are easy for me,“ smiles Erkki Keldo, former general secretary of the Reform Party, who graduated from a school specialising on mathematics.
But through it all, Jüristo constantly reiterates that Salk’s data will never give definitive answers. „We deal in probabilities,“ he says. There are broadly two schools of statistics. One says the world is certain, we just know too little about it. That's what Jüristo was taught at university. The other argues that the world itself is random. Jüristo believes the latter. „Tarmo doesn't want to say things in black and white, he models the probability distributions and I like that,“ says journalist Mikk Salu. „Binary answers are concrete and leave no room for error, but Salk suggests that the world is more complex. That also makes them more plausible.“
One and a half years before the elections
On 17 October 2021, the low pressure system moved away. The results of the local elections were announced in the evening, but Salk had done little by then. „We deliberately stayed under the radar,“ says Jüristo, „but we were testing.“ They got confirmation that their data was good - but the resolution was poor. Over the next few months, they hired a Frenchman who had modelled the French elections, set aside €30 000 and developed a new model. It turned out to be, according to Jüristo, „a very successful investment“.
One year before the elections
On 8 March 2022, the low pressure system, thought to be long gone, returned. It was Tuesday evening, it was getting on towards 8 o'clock and it was getting dark outside. Tõnis Kons looked out of his office window at Rävala boulevard into the darkness and felt nothing special. „If that's the way it is, then that's the way it is,“ thought Kons, who had just been kicked out of Isamaa, the party he had belonged to for almost 30 years.
For some time now, the faction within Isamaa that Kons had established had been disturbed by the direction in which the party was sailing - towards what they saw as reactionary and populist. The party believed that Isamaa could attract new supporters from among EKRE voters. But the Right-wingers did not believe this. „When I raised the issue,“ adds Siim Kiisler, „the party chairman said that 'Siim has the EKRE complex’.“
„We tried to argue that it was not possible to get any votes from EKRE and that Isamaa's old supporters had moved elsewhere,“ says Kristjan Vanaselja. With this hypothesis, they went to Jüristo, who said that this is exactly the case. Salk had the data to prove it. They were now going to give it to the Right-wingers.
But their aim was of course broader than providing the data - it was to help Right-wingers to take over the Isamaa party.
But their aim was of course broader than providing the data - it was to help Right-wingers to take over the party. „If the Right-wingers had won the election against the incumbent chairman, it would have meant the end of Pruunsild’s [one of the owners of Bigbank and major financial supporter of Isamaa - ed.] Isamaa,“ says Jüristo. „And here I don't think I need to go into why it would have been a big thing.“
He says he wouldn't have bet on a successful coup at any point. „It was very unlikely that it would actually go that way,“ he says, but compares the situation to poker: you can make a small bet on a very unlikely win and if you lose you're out of your small bet — but it was a small bet. However, if you win - you win big.
Several members of the Right-wingers now got the access to Salk’s data. „We found out that Isamaa has the most polarised electorate in terms of values,“ recalls Kons. When Isamaa voters were asked who their second choice would be, they basically listed all parties, not necessarily the EKRE. All this made its way into the Right-winger’s weekly circular, which was sent to all party members - and although there were sympathetic people, especially among municipal politicians, the party leaders were annoyed by such an observation. Because it would have meant ideological change of course.
According to the then Isamaa’s then member of the board Kons, it was not even discussed. Before Women's Day arrived, the four most vocal Right-winger members were simply thrown out of the party.
According to Jüristo, it was not a completely lost battle. „The confrontation ultimately weakened Isamaa's electoral prospects,“ he says. „They knew that and that's why they decided to put an early stop to it.“
The Right-wingers wasted no time to establish themselves as a new party. However, their ties with Salk weakened after the ouster. The data was of much less use for them now because their sample size was too small small to draw conclusions.
In addition, Jüristo told donors that if the goal is to keep the EKRE out of the coalition, he sees no point in supporting the Right-wingers with donations because they are unlikely to beat the required 5% threshold in the election. Kons heard this several times: I would give money, but Salk did not reccommend it. „Jüristo has had the biggest influence on our activities by persuading business people not to support the Right-wingers.“ says Siim Kiisler. Lavly Perling, the leader of the party, also makes no secret of the fact that this bothered her. „Making data visible is a very good thing,“ she says. „But when people started interpreting the data themselves and shaping public opinion on the basis of it, that was no longer okay.“
Both Vanaselja and Kons insist that, in fact, finding the money must be the Right-winger’s own concern. According to Kons, they are also planning to build their own data collection and analysis centre because „I am a data geek“ and „we don't coincide with all of Salk’s wishes“.
„I wish them all the best,“ says Jüristo, somewhat ironically. He knows only too well how much it all costs - and how complicated it all is.
Half a year before the elections
On 13 September, the sudden wave of overnight thunderstorms was finally receding, and one of the youngest PhDs in Estonian history (he defended his degree in cryptography a few months after turning 24), Margus Niitsoo, was in Tallinn to watch a John Cleese standup. „Who doesn't like Monty Python?“ Niitsoo asks a reasonable question. Then came a break, Niitsoo picked up the phone and saw that Tarmo Jüristo had sent him a long e-mail. For some time now, one of Niitsoo's colleagues had been talking about his brother-in-law, someone called Jüristo, and had urged him to meet him.
MAN OF NUMBERS: In addition to his PhD in cryptology, Margus Niitsoo was won prizes in international linguistics olympiads and, at the age of 17, wrote a paper on Fibonacci sequence.
„I understood that their aim was to prevent the EKRE from coming to power,“ says Niitsoo. „I think it is in the interests of the better world.“ Soon, Niitsoo had exchanged more messages with Jüristo than he had with his long-term partner in years, and was soon sitting at his computer working with Salk's models late into the night for months, until he realised his at the verge of burning out.
Kaido Keerma, who also works with Salk's data, reduced a workload at his main job, but admits when we meet that it didn't do much good, as fatigue sits in his bones too. He orders an espresso and calmly says his only motivation is to change the world. Then he takes a sip and says that in all this, they're „probably a bit anal“.
At one point, Keerma is „analysing maxdiff data in R“, Jüristo is working on a language model and Niitsoo is trying to create a model of voter turnout. This, he says, would be a „powerful tool for the next elections“, because it would allow to identify likely voters across different regions. Work is already under way on media monitoring, which will allow us to see how certain issues develop, who is engaged by them and to what degree.
„The level of their data is absolutely extraordinary,“ says an embassy official of a major country. „They're way ahead of everyone in Estonia right now,“ adds Kaarel Oja. „Both in the way they model the data and what they are able to extract from it, and how well and quickly they present it.“ The level of detail in the data is constantly highlighted. Accuracy. Reliability. „Salk wants to know,“ says Siim Kiisler. „They don't want to produce press releases with the results they want.“ And so on. But there are also those who say that Salk's research - like pretty much all research - is biased.
What can most influence the results of surveys is the wording of the question. Political scientist Martin Mölder gives the example of the Salk’s survey on marriage equality in early March. „We used the word ‘civil partnership law' before,“ says Tõnis Leht. „But the election results gave reason to replace it with the statement 'I think same-sex couples should have the right to marry’.“
The results showed such a large support that Tarmo Jüristo did not first believe it and took two days to „post-stratify“ and „identify anomalies“. He did not find any. „If you ask about equality, it appeals to many people,“ says Mölder (although the word was not used in the survey). „But if asked about changing the definition of marriage, they would have got different results. Because they have their own political mission, it inevitably influences what is asked and how.“
But Tanel Paas argues that the Institute for Social Research's research on „same-sex marriage“ has shown more or less similar results. According to Kaido Keerma, the institute's surveys are „blindfolded“ and this reproach is heard more than once. „If it is possible to ask the question in a guiding way, the Institute for Social Research will not miss the opportunity,“ says one of the leaders of Reform Party Kristen Michal, adding: „To put it mildly.“ According to Peeter Espak, the accusations of bias are untrue, because they are spurred on by the „interest in finding out all sorts of things“. He has declined all invitations from political parties to give talks.
Martin Mölder, who has assisted the institute in the formulation of questions and in other ways, also disagrees with the accusation bias. „I have no reason to apologise,“ he says. Mölder argues that they are less bent on influencing politicians than Salk. But after a pause for reflection, he believes their niche is „to be a brake on the political process“, because, as the average Estonian politician is said to be significantly more liberal than the average Estonian voter, the Institute for Social Research has „pointed at this difference“. According to Mölder, such an approach is not 'influencing' but 'highlighting differences’.
In addition to the formulation of questions in one way or another, anomalies are introduced into polls from other sources. People may not answer honestly but feel they have to give answers that pollsters would expect of them. It is well known how people tend to hide their sympathies for politicians whom public opinion despises. People may answer one way in surveys one day and another the next.
There is an interesting psychological phenomenon in post-election polls where people can no longer remember who they voted for.
There is an interesting psychological phenomenon in post-election polls where people can no longer remember who they voted for. The differences come in the methodologies: if you phone people, you get one set of results, but if you ask online, you get a different view. Or you go to ask people for their opinion on a subject that doesn't matter to them at all - they still give their opinion, but you blow air into what isn't really there. And so on.
Because of all this, Tarmo Jüristo refuses to call data analysis a precise science, describing the data as a ‘noisy’, in need of a lot of work before anything reliable starts to emerge. You do the calculations, the modelling and the sample weighting, but people's preferences are still illogical, emotional, inconsistent.
Another part of the whole issue, Jüristo says, is that politicians generally don't really know their voters and think they are all the same. He admits that Salk doesn't know this either, because they are not alike the median voter themselves too. „How can you better understand that others are different from you - and different in different ways?“ he asks a question to which no model, analysis or study can provide a definitive answer.
Two months and six days before the elections
On December 30, the weather was warmer than average and had been so since the beginning of the month. Tarmo Jüristo opened his computer, got the results of the new survey and spent the first weeks of the new year with them.
It was not just another poll. By using sophisticated methods, the model was finally able to tell people not what they think, but what is really salient to them - and on the basis of which they will actually make their choice in the upcoming election. „With this model, we were able to look into the margins,“ says Jüristo. „We saw things that you don't see otherwise.“
At the same time, a focus groups were conducted. Two-hour conversations in undecided voters had to talk and reason. From behind a dark screen, Tõnis Leht watched them and gave the focus group leader a rolling input: now this topic, now this. For the parties, it was no longer just answers, but also arguments. Based on the focus groups, short summaries were prepared for the three parties and specific recommendations were made.
The Reform Party, for example, was advised to avoid engaging EKRE on immigration, but go ahead and talk more about renewable energy (however, avoiding „green turn“, that word scares voters) and availability of nursing homes. For men, it is worth talking about the nuclear power, for young people about the minimum wage, to undecided voters about everything except the structure of the tax system and aid for Ukraine.
For the social democrats it was pointed out that people think they are being too soft. However, they could focus on livelihoods and availability of health care, mental health issues and education. They could talk about the minimum wage, but bear in mind that this is a subject that mainly matters to those who are unlikely to vote - and there is no point talking about the deforestation because nobody really cares about that.
FOR BETTER FUTURE: Kaido Keerma admits, that working for Salk is exhausting, but the wish to change the world keeps him going.
For the Eesti 200 Salk did not come up with a concrete set of suggestions. „We didn't make a recommendation paper like to the others,“ says Tõnis Leht, „because their profile is much blurrier and more random.“ Instead, they were spoken to.
All the parties say that the recommendations they received were used at least in some way. And this despite one focus group respondent talking about his former dream that Estonia could be a kingdom with another suggesting introducing the Old Testament principle that every 49 years all people are released from debt.
Six weeks before the elections
On 16 January, it was snowing and raining, with a light wind. In the light beige library of a small village sat Jüri Ratas, two-time former prime minister, chairman of the Centre Party and the Riigikogu, and the second most important man in Estonia. He had six listeners. Three of them were members of Ratas' campaign team.
At the same time, Martin Helme, chairman of the EKRE, was touring Estonia, standing up in front of several hundred people to rock music and making what some listeners described as „politically very good“ speeches. Applause broke out every few sentences, and at the end of the speech there was almost a storm of applause. In comparison, the Central Party's withered election campaign in Kostivere was like night and day.
The party's vice-chairman Tanel Kiik is not making excuses. The party was short of money, the fall into the opposition had worsened its position, the earlier criticism of e-elections had taken its toll, and the party's falling ratings due to the war had clouded the understanding in the party that it is paramount to get their supporters out to vote on the election day. „I say all the time in the Centre Party that what is important is not just support but the actual turnout of the voters,“ he says. Moreover, the rise of the war as the main election issue did not exactly favour his party, which he says is „more credible on socio-economic issues“.
He saw Salk’s data „sporadically“ and „piecemeal“, looking mainly at education and tax issues, where there was more controversy inside the party. Together with the party's secretary-general Andre Hanimägi, they do the data analysis themselves. „We had to do the work ourselves this time because of lack of money,“ says Kiik. He does not remember any particular surprises or influences from the data. „The polls don't have a big impact on our established programme, but rather on the focus of the election campaign,“ he says.
His speech is, as usual, fast and without pauses. The election went as it did. „The Centre Party needs to do more work,“ he concludes. „Especially among young people.“ Then he puts the phone down.
Five and a half weeks before the elections
On 19 January, clouds from Latvia moved into south-eastern Estonia across the southern border, with snow, sleet and torrential rain everywhere. Kaido Keerma and Margus Niitsoo stood in front of the Tartu branch of Eesti 200 and talked for an hour about the issues that concern voters in Tartu. Among the audience was Daniel Kõiv, a 19-year-old high school graduate who had been brought in just a month ago to lead the Eesti 200 campaign. The outdoor spaces were sold out by then. There was no budget. They didn’t have many credible speakers on national security issues. The only option was to aim precisely.
„Salk gave us all the information we needed,“ says Kõiv. He passionately recounts how they kept asking Salk for new and new models throughout the campaign. Which direction they have moved in. Where things could be improved. Kõiv sat in their database „several times a week“, and every few days he would get an in-depth look at new developments. Messages on education and mental health, for example, were now highlighted.
Gradually, the numbers of the Eesti 200 began to climb up in Tartu. At one point it was noticed that, against all expectations, as many as two constituency mandates could be taken in Tartu, and the party's central office channelled more money to them for the campaign. But it wasn't just Tartu.
„Salk's data helped us to very clearly pinpoint regional messages and also to precisely target audiences.“ says Lauri Hussar, the party's chairman. „We used all this in our communication because the Salk’s tool worked.“
For some, it was now starting to look likely that the Eesti 200 might win more seats in parliament than previously thought.
36 days before the elections
On 27 January, for the first time in winter, the sky was bright blue and the sun shone brightly. At two in the morning, Tarmo Jüristo drove his wife to the maternity hospital. The last few weeks had been fast. Meetings with the leaderships of the various political parties. Discussions. Gatherings. Coordination meetings. Advice to the Centre Party or to the Eesti 200 on what to do in general. There was less time to analyse the data and he had only managed to write a snippet of code that day.
He helped his wife to the delivery room and left. „This time I decided that childbirth was a woman's world,“ says her wife. Then Jüristo took the lift down, got into the car, drove home and wrote some more new code. When her daughter was born in the early hours of the morning, the wind outside was light and changeable.
27 days before the elections
On 6 February, it was warmer in Europe but still cool and snowing in Estonia. In the early hours of the morning, Kaido Keerma pressed a familiar button and the first Salk’s video went up. A few snippets of EKRE people's speeches on the war in Ukraine had been selected from last year, pasted together and now broadcast. „They were very ugly for us,“ says Jaak Valge, a member of the EKRE leadership. „They were trying to paint a picture of us as people who are drunkards and Kremlin puppets.“ Tõnis Leht smiles. „I don't disagree,“ he says. „But the EKRE made these clips with their own statements.“
A few days later, Salk broadcast a new video. And then some more. In the end, Salk's videos were watched by about 200 000 people, maybe more. „I don't think those videos had a big impact on anybody,“ says Jevgeni Ossinovski, a member of the Social Democratic Party leadership. „It was like preaching to the choir: everyone agreed anyway.“ Erkki Keldo disagrees. „Those videos certainly helped us,“ he says. „They mobilised the electorate because they reminded them of everything.“
COMPLICATED QUESTIONS: Alari Rammo would like to know where to draw the line where manipulation begins.
Alari Rammo recalls that there had been discussions about the ethics of the negative campaign, and in particular whether is should all be done under Salk’s own name, but no one else from Salk remembers this. „This was needed,“ says Keerma. Summer polls had shown that people's sense of alarm concerning the war in Ukraine was beginning to fade, and that a strong national security card for the liberals was slowly losing its bite. „This is bold,“ Annika Arras also thought as she saw the videos. She knows that, unfortunately, it's easier to breed opposition than to support, and negative campaigns do work. „But aren't you guys going over the top?“
There was nothing too glamorous in the clips. Professionals were on the job, but Salk wanted the videos to look low-fi and anonymous: as if someone had cut them together in their garage. Nobody wants to spread partisan content - but guerrilla clips quickly went viral.
The target groups were carefully selected. The aim was not even so much to hurt the EKRE, but their old ally Isamaa.
The target groups were carefully selected. The aim was not even so much to hurt the EKRE, but their old ally Isamaa. Keerma searched for a particular quote from Isamaa chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder until he finally found it - „The EKRE's talk is increasingly pro-Russian and extremely dangerous for Estonia, but we do not rule them out as a coalition partner“. A separate clip was cut together for the conservative older Estonian males. The angry remarks by Mart Helme, the EKRE deputy chairman, about Ukrainian refugees were left out. It would have spoken of the bad effects of immigration and, according to the data, many might have nodded their heads in agreement. However, in videos aimed at younger people, the quote was left in.
What EKRE politicians had said about women was picked up, and there was a deliberate emphasis on abortion, because abortion rights have a wide support. Keerma noticed that the video was not shared much because it was an uncomfortable subject - but it was watched a lot.
„We shifted EKRE back to the fringe, reminded people of their radicalism and raised the temperature so that the casual voter would not stray towards them,“ says Keerma.
Kristo Enn Vaga, the Reform Party's campaign manager, says that the Reform Party had planned its own negative campaign, but now it was dropped and time and money were spent on something else. „We didn't need to be in mud wrestling ourselves,“ says Vaga. „It was done by an independent foundation.“ But for some people inside Salk, too, this is a problem.
Alari Rammo asks when working with data will turn into manipulating with data. Where does informing stop and intimidation begin? How do you behave in a situation where the EKRE does
what it wants and believes it is acting democratically - and you believe the same but don't want to behave like the EKRE. Sit still? Do you focus on the electoral victory, on the immediate success of that victory, or do you focus on the longer, but much less glamorous issues of education, livelihoods, inequality? He has no good answers to these questions.
„I am sure that Tarmo Jüristo knows that the EKRE has nothing to do with the Kremlin,“ says Jaak Valge. „Painting a different picture is neither sincere nor ethical.“ According to Kaido Keerma, he was only concerned with informing voters, using only quotes and ones that no one had regretted or retracted. But to what extent is a seemingly independent foundation allowed to interfere in politics at all? Has Pandora's box been opened? „Yes,“ says Kaido Keerma calmly.
26 days before the elections
On the morning of 7 February, for the umpteenth day, the thermometer was unable to decide whether to rise above or stay below zero. A couple of hours earlier, Margus Tsahkna, a member of the board of Eesti 200, had declared that „the Nursipalu training polygon [to be expanded despite local opposition - ed.] has become a symbol of the inertia and indecision of Kaja Kallas' government“. This attack was not uncommon. During the last elections, the Reform Party had attacked the Eesti 200. There are those who say that the first instinct of the leader of the Social Democrats, Lauri Läänemetsa, is to consider the Reform Party his greatest ideological enemy. And so on. Attacks within the so-called liberal front have never been rare - and this time was no exception. Until at one point they stopped.
Kristo Enn Vaga recalls how the Eesti 200 started attacking Kaja Kallas and was joined by the Social Democrats. „Then Jüristo spoke to them,“ says Vaga. „He showed the figures and proved that the voters of Eesti 200 supported Kallas almost as much as those of the Reform Party.“ The attack on Kallas stopped and instead the attempt was made to show themselves as his partner.
According to Kristina Kallas, vice-chair of Eesti 200, this is true. „There is always an impulse in political parties to attack those from whom you hope to gain voters, but we realised that the voters are not really won that way,“ says Kallas. „Jüristo pressured us to abandon the traditional campaign plan because it would have been to the detriment of all of us.“ He remembers that several old sharks within the party were against it, they still believed in confrontation, but in the end it was abandoned. „Salk consolidated us,“ says Kristina Kallas. „We stopped attacking each other because Jüristo made it clear to us, based on the data, that there was no point.“
Jüristo says he did not root for any particular party to win. For years, he didn't even cast his vote. Salk's aim, he says, was to create as many liberal coalition options as possible, and that's why the liberal parties were brought together in a single information space. „Yes, the data was good, but it was more important that everyone had the same data,“ says Jüristo. „It was through them that the parties got in touch with each other,“ says analyst Erik Moora. „The space for cooperation was mapped out, opportunities for consensus emerged and a common understanding was shared about what society supports and what it doesn’t.“
For example, everyone was advised to link their issues to national security, but to make a distinction between support for Ukraine and support for Ukrainian refugees - and this was respected. Everyone was also advised not to talk about marriage equality during the campaign. When Kristina Kallas looked at the figures for support for marriage equality, she said they were encouraging. Yet the Eesti 200 did not build their messages on this either. „Jüristo advised against it,“ says Daniel Kõiv. „He said that if we start on this issue, we will become vulnerable. But if EKRE starts, they will be the 'dividers' and we can be the 'enablers'.“
20 days before the elections
One minute after midnight on 15 February, an interview with Martin Helme was posted on the website of Postimees, one of the Estonia’s two main daily newspapers. For the journalist Aimar Altosaar (former general secretary of Isamaa), the entire Helme family were no strangers. They have been in contact for decades.
They had a conversation the day before in the Riigikogu. Already the third question was about Ukraine and Helme quickly worked himself up to the point where he accused the Defence Forces of lying, called the provision of so much arms aid to Ukraine unacceptable and the Chief of the Defence Forces a person who 'doesn't understand or doesn't want to understand anything' — and so on.
Altosaar was startled and offered Helme the opportunity to rephrase some of the more controversial points. Things happen in interviews. But Helme declined and went on an even bolder way. When Altosaar later rewrote the interview, the editorial staff asked if he was really putting it all in the paper - but it's not a journalist's job to censor the party chairman. Everything went public.
In the early morning of the same day, Major General Veiko-Vello Palm called Altosaar and wanted to clarify the facts. The title of his interview became laconic: „Martin Helme is lying to achieve his political goals“. He clearly did not achieve them. „It was certainly not our doing that Martin Helme decided to put the starter pistol in his mouth at the final stretch and pull the trigger several times,“ Tarmo Jüristo told Salk’s financiers a few weeks after the elections.
Many think that the EKRE's and especially Martin Helme's faltering on national security issues was the key in these elections. Helme is also seen by his opponents as a quick-thinking, sharp and analytical person with a good sense of gut and a very straightforward way of speaking. But this time he missed the mark.
The very mistake was to try to put subsistence first. When that idea failed, the sense of direction was lost. For Kristen Michal, a member of the Reform Party's leadership, it seems to have happened in mid-December. „They suddenly disappeared from the political debate,“ says Michal. „It was clear that something was wrong.“ He speculates that the EKRE decided to change its style, not to be so rough and offensive, because the confrontation could give momentum to the Reform Party instead. „But when they realised the world wasn't going to change, they came back - and even more viciously,“ says Michal. „Emotion won the day,“ says Tõnis Leht. „The strategy was logical, but they overplayed their hand.“
Kristo Enn Vaga noticed that never before in Estonia has one political party made so many TV ads with different messages. „They bet on many topics, but not on any one with seriousness,“ says Vaga.
The social democrats - as well as the EKRE - understood this, but still needed „their angle“. In search of it, they kept looking to the Salk’s data. „It was clear that the main theme of the election was national security, and even clearer that no one was going to outperform the Reform Party on this issue,“ says Kaarel Oja, who had the Salk’s data page open almost incessantly. „However, there was a great desire within the party to talk about issues of coping, and in fact the importance of this gradually grew.“ But the Salk’s dataset ruled out the possibility of ignoring the war issue, and the idea of linking the two was born. The social democrats' slogan became „Making ends meet is a question of national security“ - and „it worked well,“ as Oja says succinctly.
A few days after the elections, Helme gave an interview in which he complained that his confrontation was not intended to be with the heads of the defence forces (although he had posted a series of messages about them, calling them 'vermin' among other things), but that he would have liked to debate national security issues with Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Defence Minister Hanno Pevkur. „He was desperate for opportunities,“ says Keldo. But those he wanted to fight, for some reason, did not engage with him. Because even on the Ukrainian war issue, the EKRE had one trump card, but it could not use it now. Or they didn't know what that card was.
Jüristo hesitates for a long time whether to talk about it. He doesn't want too much to be known about Salk's data. When polls came out last summer on people's attitudes towrds helping Ukrainians, they were - as the public has been told all along - entirely positive. However, when the question was worded slightly differently, and instead of 'helping' they wanted to know attitudes to 'immigration' and 'helping at our expense', the figures were very different. „We saw a completely different attitude than was presented to the public,“ says Erkki Keldo. „There was a chance for the EKRE. But fortunately their narrative didn't fly.“
Why didn't they take their chance? „Nobody can see into that party,“ says Keldo. Do they do research? How much do they do? There is data to suggest that polls were actually commissioned in significant numbers, but the poll itself doesn't mean anything. Who analyses them? A decent data analyst in Estonia is paid at least as much as the prime minister, and keeping them on the payroll is too expensive for all the parties.
Did EKRE know? Or didn't they? Whatever the case, Salk’s data showed that the EKRE's tripping over national security issues may have cost dearly not says Jüristo, using his favourite word, „that they would drag Isamaa along with them. Because Isamaa nodded off at the wheel and noticed no danger.“
Two weeks before the elections
The end of February was a blur, as all end-Februaries are. „We have to break away from them [the EKRE - ed.], otherwise we will slip along,“ wrote Tõnis Lukas one day to some of his party colleagues. Discontent had arisen in Isamaa, and he was not the only one.
The chairman of Isamaa, Helir-Valdor Seeder, and the general secretary, Priit Sibul, announced that they were distancing themselves from the EKRE's statements. „Too little too late,“ Martin Mölder smiles mildly.
A few days later, both the chairman of Isamaa, Helir-Valdor Seeder, and the general secretary, Priit Sibul, announced that they were distancing themselves from the EKRE's statements. „Too little too late,“ Martin Mölder smiles mildly in a café in the capital. But some would argue that it should have been Mölder to warn Isamaa in time.
Mölder himself is not inclined to emphasise his connection with Isamaa. He admits that he has shared his knowledge with political parties, but which ones he would 'prefer to keep to himself' (the Reform Party, the Social Democrats and EKRE all disawow any involvement). Tõnis Kons recalls that during his time in Isamaa, Mölder more than once attended Isamaa’s events and gave advice on who Isamaa voters are and what they care about.
But according to Mölder, no one could have foreseen that EKRE would not realise the support they had and that this would also affect Isamaa. „The data didn't show that,“ he says. „The electorate surprised with its fluidity.“ Kaido Keerma doesn't understand this. Their data showed exactly that for Isamaa voters, support for Ukraine is the most important issue of all - and that EKRE is viewed most negatively of all parties.
According to Tõnis Lukas, such a strong association between Isamaa and EKRE was a „false image in society“ and Salk was actively working to deepen it. „We came under fire from all sides because we were seen as a disturbing legend,“ he says. „We were cancelled.“ He does not agree that Isamaa's decision at the time to go into coalition with the EKRE defined the party - or if it did, then in a positive way at a particular moment. „We won't let Estonia become polarised, because in the long run this will lead to a two-party system,“ he says. „We have to work together. We can't fit two separate Estonias inside us.“
He says Isamaa was turned into EKRE's „little brother“, and it was „a staged performance, hurtful and damaging to us“. He refers to Salk's analyses that created „public prejudice“ and calls Salk himself an „agitprop brigade“. The danger, he says, was spotted long ago in Isamaa.
Yet nothing was done. And when it was, it was already too late.
A week before the elections
In the last week before the elections, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform Party) seemed a little nervous. „I don't feel good,“ she repeatedly told her campaign team. Polls varied, changed, support waxed and waned abnormally over the days. „I didn't think it was impossible that EKRE would win the election,“ admits Martin Šmutov, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Õhtuleht.
But campaign manager Kristo Enn Vaga's fears had faded. He looked at the number of visits to the Reform Party's website, and it had doubled compared to four years ago. Vaga predicted that 30% of the vote could come their way. He did not dare to offer more. „As a party, we are used to being pessimists, and that makes us try harder.“ he says. That's their tactic.
When Salk’s models showed in the autumn that the Reform Party's support was higher than the ratings suggested, the party’s head office became concerned and Keldo asked Jüristol not to put that data out to the public. „It was half-joking,“ says Keldo, but he doesn't hide the fact that when, a month and a half before the election other ratings started to show what Salk's models had earlier, he was not happy. „It started to eat away at us,“ he says.
The public began to get the feeling that everything had already been decided. Voters were becoming relaxed. „We couldn't afford it,“ says Keldo. Candidates needed to get on the streets. Into the media. Everywhere.
In the weeks that followed, Reform Party members could be seen on city streets across Estonia having morning coffee, going out to lunch, or coming to the mall in the evening. They were everywhere, right up to the last minute. „I'm proud that we didn't let our guard down,“ says Keldo. „We needed to get up not only the number of supporters of the Reform Party,“ says Jüristo, „but the number of people who would turn their support into votes cast in the elections.“ There are those who say that one survey, published three days before the elections, which showed the EKRE had closed the gap with the Reform Party, was commissioned by the Reform Party itself. The Reform Party, of course, rejects this. They say it was no longer needed.
The day before the elections
Kaido Keerma met Jevgeni Ossinovski by chance in a shop and said there should be restrictions on political associations that are not political parties in the new coalition agreement. They should be required to reveal their donors. They should have to submit reports. Isamaa had blocked this so far. This should chance. Let’s close Pandora's box.
Election day morning
The weather was unpredictable that day: clouds alternated with clear skies, snowfall with calm, thaw with frost.
When Tarmo Jüristo's phone rang, „Kaja“ appeared. „What’s your feeling?“ asked the Prime Minister. They've known each other for decades, and Jüristo calls Kaja Kallas a „close friend“ who at one point in her life lived in the apartment Jüristo had standing empty. Now they spoke for several dozen minutes. Jüristo says the figures are positive, but he doesn’t dare to be too optimistic. Maybe 33 seats? „Yes,“ said Kaja Kallas. „I don't dare to hope for more either.“ 33 seats. She put the phone down.
Three hours before midnight
Kaido Keerma was calm. „All is very well,“ he thought. The paper ballots had largely been counted, and he calculated what the result of the e-votes might be, given all the different models. It was going to be very good. He decided to go to the Eesti 200 party.
An hour before midnight
„The map is terribly blue,“ [blue – color of EKRE, ed.] Jüristo read the message on his phone in the Delfi election studio moments before the broadcast. The e-votes hadn't come in yet and the man restoring his farm-house in south of the country was worried. „It's going to be all right,“ Jüristo replied. „The e-votes will come soon.“ That did not reassure. „It will make things better, but will it be enough?“ the workman asked. „It will,“ replied Jüristo, adding a smile. The workman added a heart.
39 minutes to midnight
In his hotel room in London, Sten Tamkivi was sitting on a bed watching the results come in. He was sich with Covid and not exactly overly optimistic. When the e-votes came in, Tamkivi felt a „tremendous sense of relief“ wash over him. He picked up his phone, opened the Salk’s WhatsApp group and posted his congratulations. But there the party was already on. „The votes are in!“ „We won!“ „BOOM!“ That's what Salk's donors wrote. „Fuck yeah!“ added one of them.
Daniel Kõiv and Kristina Kallas were driving away from the TV station when the news broke. They looked each other in the eye and Kõiv thinks they might have shouted „Yess! We did it!“
Kallas remembers that moment differently. She was about to enter the ETV+ studio when the results came on just before he left the waiting room. She watched them for about 27 seconds and then said: „Wow.“
37 minutes before midnight
Margus Niitsoo was at a friend's house with his laptop. He had locked himself in a separate room, not to be disturbed. He had built a programme that, if successful, would have given Tarmo Jüristo the opportunity to be the first person in the Republic of Estonia to say: these election results are final. „Probably,“ says Niitsoo. Except that the Electoral Commission's data were delayed. Then suddenly it became clear that the EKRE no longer stood a chance. „It's as if a great weight has been lifted off your shoulders,“ he says. Then he saw the result of the Reform Party and became sullen. He had hoped for a progressive income tax. Now it was clear that there would be none in the next four years. The Reform Party will do what it wants.
„I would have liked to save this moment,“ Erkki Keldo smiles, comparing it to the birth of a son. „I didn't dare to hope that and I was very surprised,“ adds Kristen Michal. „I am still very positively surprised.“
In Delfi's election studio, the anchor tried to cautiously say that the figures could still change and that the state of play was not final, but Jüristo looked at him and ran his fingers across the throat. „Nothing will change here,“ was his message. „It's final.“
Annika Arras was in the radio studio at the time with Martin Helme. Together, they watched Kaja Kallas' victory speech on the monitors. Arras watched Helme sink deeper and deeper into his chair and clasp his body with his hands in silence.
Quarter to one at night
Jüristo was on the balcony of the Delfi election studio when Kaja Kallas walked in the door. They waved to each other, then Jüristo slipped down the stairs to Kallas. „We weren't right,“ Kallas smiled. „It was more than 33.“ Jüristo remembers that „we were both very glad“.
Half past one at night
Around half past one, Jüristo arrived at the Reval Café next to the Radisson Hotel, which is located directly below Tõnis Kons' office. At the door, he bumped into a former leader of Social Democrats. „Well,“ he said. „We did pretty well, even though you kept trying to drag us down.“
When I remind Jüristo of this episode, he is visibly annoyed. In the space of half a year, Salk had brought in some EUR 200 000 for the Social Democrats, and it was not easy, with many questioning whether it was worth watering this wilting plant. A speech by former prime minister Tiit Vähi at their fundraiser, in which he said that hysteria over Russia had gone over the top and that if it continued in the same vein, he would have to stop supporting orphanages, had been deeply unacceptable to many tech entrepreneurs.
Because they were the weakest link in the whole chain. They had to be carried out of the death zone.
At the same event, a senior party member had declared that start-ups should be ‘reigned in'. He might have been joking, but several start-up entrepreneurs left that meeting disappointed, if not angry. Still, Salk had made a recommendation to support the Social Democrats. „Because they were the weakest link in the whole chain,“ says Jüristo calmly. „They had to be carried out of the death zone.“
This is the reason their campaign was supported. They were given the data. Their campaign points were put into the polls. „Our board talks about Salk’s data all the time,“ said one Social Democrat to Sten Tamkivi. According to Kaarel Oja, the link to the Salk’s database was among those he had open all the time for the last three months, as he used them „quite a bit“ when considering the emphasis of messages in Tallinn. For example, a decision was made to avoid the term „green turn“ and instead talk about care for nature or environmental protection.
Emotionally highly charged issues such as marriage equality, logging or immigration were put on a backburner, because the data showed that voters just didn't care very much about them. There was little to win by talking about them, but potentially a lot to lose. „For big complex issues, their data was very useful for picking the angle,“ says Oja. „There were some issues we thought that would fly well with the electorate, but the data showed otherwise,“ says Jevgeni Ossinovski. „At least in the Tallinn campaign we tried to trust the data.“
But the suspicion persisted. There were rumours that Salk had advised not to support former Minister of Environment Madis Kallas because he was unlikely to get a mandate, and that Kallas needed to work a lot to fundraise on his own. Kallas rejects this. „Salk has been a great help to us, for example on which target groups and areas to focus on,“ he says in a late-night message.
Many people still see Salk as working for one particular party. „The Reform Party certainly benefited from Salk's activities,“ says journalist Anvar Samost laconically. He does not mention any other party.
When I ask Jüristo whether he finds the Reform Party's election victory disappointing, he says that's none of his concern. „My job was to create the conditions for something to happen, and whether it will happen in the end is another matter,“ he says.
1 o'clock at night
When Tarmo Jüristo left Reval Café, he walked just a few metres over to the Radisson Hotel nest woor, where the Reform Party was celebrating their victory. On seeing Jüristo, according to eyewitnesses a small storm broke out. „I didn't look at Salk’s data myself,“ says Kaja Kallas. „But we used their polls all the time. Not to change positions, but to pick emphases. It was important for us to find out how certain issues either divide or unite.“
Initially, for example, there was caution about floating the idea of an income tax exemption, but Salk’s research confirmed its „surprising popularity“ - and the promise was let loose. Support numbers and issues were monitored „on a weekly basis“ in the inner circles, according to Kristo Enn Vaga. Voters were differentiated, ads were targeted, messages were set. Back in the autumn, the Reform Party felt that the war was no longer such an important issue and started to think about shifting towards offering various benefits, but then backtracked. „Salk's input gave us the confidence to stand firm on national security,“ says Vaga. They focused on their voters and where they perceived a danger based on the data, they didn't go.
Once again, the Reform Party's electoral machine, described by its rivals as the most pragmatic and professional, sailed into the harbour of victory. „These election results had nothing to do with the opposition of liberalism and conservatism,“ says Jaak Valge. „The election results were influenced by external factors. The coalition simply managed to play them out better.“
At two in the morning
Alari Rammo was asleep for several hours. Something always happens to him before the crucial final moment. He somehow manages to watch Eurovision, but is already asleep when the votes are cast. „I don't want to get any more excited at the possibility of bad news, because there's nothing I can do about it,“ says Rammo. Exactly who won, what direction the coalitions will take - he had no idea.
That the election results this time around were a surprise is all anyone can say. Kaarel Oja recalls that Salk had predicted the probability of a 60-seat coalition to be 0.2%.
For many, the biggest surprise was the marked success of Kremlin sympathisers in Ida-Viru County. Viktoria Ladynskaya-Kubits, a member of Isamaa, says there was an explosion of shadow voting in Ida-Viru County - people apparently hid from pollsters their true voting intention. Jüristo says they discussed measuring the popularity of Mikhail Stalnukhin, but decided there was no point. They didn't even discuss other pro-Kremlin candidates. „Our models were blind to this particular thing,“ he admits. But there were others who were paying attention. „Our guys were sure they would take 3%,“ says Arnold Sinisalu, director general of the secret police.
A few days after the elections
The winning parties reach agreement on some points in the coalition negotiations fairly quickly. „We will create regulation for non-party political associations,“ they write in the agreement.
„Today it is too easy to do the things we did — and we still kept a very clean line,“ says Jüristo, speaking of the negative campaign. „The same is true for what we did on the data side. It should all be open and verifiable.“
This is also the reason why Salk and their backers agree with the present actible — in order to be voluntarily transparent and thus try to dispel rumours of a „deep state“. „Influencing politics is OK,“ says Jüristo, but he insists on certain rules, also referring to the Institute for Public Policy Research, which has „been influencing Estonian politics for years with nobody knows how much money they have received for it and from whom exactly“.
Whose interests do foundations like Salk represent? Where does the money come from and where does the data go? „This is a national security issue,“ says Erkki Keldo. „I have a feeling that the importance of this not nearly enough appreciated,“ adds Jüristo.
According to Anvar Samost, there is another solution that could be applied here. In his opinion, what is needed is public funding for party foundations or thinktanks - providing expert analysis, journalists with someone to talk to about the background and content of politics, everything open and accessible. The idea was once floated in Estonia — but then abandoned.
Twenty days after the elections
When Kaja Kallas was first told that the coalition partners wanted to go for marriage equality, she was said by those present to have locked up. She was already personally in favour of it, but had not long ago promised the conservative wing of her party that only the Civic Partnership Act would be finally implemented, while the marriage would not be touched. But now the situation was different. Jüristo had sent him the results of the latest poll, which showed that a majority of Estonians support the marriage equality. „We did look at Salk’s data at the table,“ says Jevgeni Ossinovski, „but we did not use it.“
But public pressure had increased. Young members of the party took marriage equality for granted and the Estonian 200 called it their „red line“. „She was cornered,“ says Kristina Kallas, who wears a rainbow-coloured heart when we meet. The tension grew until Margus Tsahkna is reported to have told the incoming prime minister that the issue was important, but that they were not engaged in blackmail. Take your time. Talk to people. The pressure was off the PM.
A few more days later
It was a moment during the next meeting that Kristina Kallas still remembers. Kaja Kallas is, after all, a former lawyer - she needs not only a world view, but also arguments. „We told her that if we accept it now, in four years' time the current outrage will have died down,“ says Kristina Kallas. „But if we don't deal with it now, this issue will eat us up in all the next elections.
Kaja Kallas spoke one by one with the more conservative members of her party. Then she came back. And she said that the marriage equality will come.
According to the sources, the most passionate pro-marriage campaigners were Riina Sikkut, Jevgeni Ossinovski, Kristina Kallas and Margus Tsahkna. None of them refute this. According to Ossinovski, Kallas was persuaded that a historic opportunity had opened up and that not to seize it „is not particularly wise“. And if a historically strong liberal coalition limits itself only to clearing up the remaining implementing provisions of the Civil Partnership Act, that half of society will never forgive it.
„During the elections, we did not stress these issues,“ says Ossinovski. „International experience tells us that on these issues liberals lose and conservatives win votes.“ But now, he says, it had to be done because „it is the right thing to do“. Over the next few days, Kaja Kallas spoke one by one with the more conservative members of her party. Then she came back. And she said that the marriage equality will come.
When I ask Jüristo how he feels about having gone from a marriage referendum to a marriage equality in 30 months, he says that was never the aim. „It was a possible outcome,“ he says, and tells the story of one of his friends, a good golfer. The latter had once told Jüristo that if you want to hit a very small target from a very long distance, don't aim at the target, but at a slightly larger area around it. „You'd be surprised how often you end up hitting the ball into the hole with the first shot like that,“ he told Jüristo. Salk’s goal, Jüristo said, wasn't the marriage equality, but to get as close to it as possible. „Let go of the illusion that things are under your control,“ he writes, „and do your best to make it possible from them to happen.“
It sounds almost like a Buddhist mantra from Luke Skywalker. His little picture is on Jüristo's desk. „May the force be with you“ is written on it. Every night it wraps itself in darkness.
Two and a half weeks after the elections
23 March was a wintry day, the snow hadn't gone anywhere. Tarmo Jüristo meets Sten Tamkivi, Taavet Hinrikus and Markus Villig, Salk’s main donors. They joke around, drink coffee. Then they draw summaries.
According to Jüristo, things went as they did for a number of reasons. The Reform Party's strong position on national security and the EKRE's astonishing weakness, which also dragged Isamaa down. Perhaps also the emergence of the Eesti 200 as a „new force“ or the unexpected self-assertion of the Social Democrats. The dire state of the Centre Party and their losing of the Russian-speaking voter. And certainly a marked increase in turnout - 50 000 new voters. Exactly who these voters were is still anyone's guess, because the Electoral Commission is still consulting the data folder.
How many Salk added to that, Jüristo does not know. Some things are measurable. Half a million euros was raised in a short period of time for the three parties that formed the coalition. This is not a small amount, and some things were made possible. But most things are not measurable.
There are those who think that Salga's impact was close to zero. Jaak Valge admits that Salk’s actions have never been discussed in the EKRE's board - they cannot be influenced anyway. Tõnis Lukas says that Salk has never been discussed in the Isamaa board either. „Don't overestimate their influence,“ says Peeter Espak of the Institute for Social Research. „I wouldn't put so much emphasis on one organisation,“ adds his colleague Tanel Paas.
Martin Mölder does not deny that „there was definitely an impact“ and argues that Salk helped to get the atmosphere so emotionally heated that it activated voters. But it inflicted wounds and „now the cracks should be smoothed over“. Parvel Pruunsild, on the other hand, says that „Salk is certainly an influential association and they will undoubtedly have a big impact on the current coalition“, but he too is reluctant to comment further because his aims are „completely different“ from Salk’s.
There is also a uncertainty within Salk. „We are seen as having more power than we have,“ says Jarmo Seljamaa. „There's no point in over-mystifying us,“ adds Tõnis Leht. „In the end, the election result was decided by the people and the parties.“
Jüristo has heard all kinds of assessments. One person told him that Salk decided the fate of 10 seats. The chairman of one of the coalition parties said to him as he left the TV studio that the data was „very useful“. But Jüristo says he would like to remain conservative. A number of things just 'happened' right, without Salk having had anything to do with them. Perhaps two seats more for the liberals (and thus two seats less for the conservatives) was Salk's impact? I don't know.
Tamkivi listens in that meeting and says that Salk’s supporters „have regained their peace of mind“. „Something very unique has been done and there is a lot to be proud of,“ Hinrikus adds. The future is then discussed. What if it all was done again, but on a bigger scale? Should we go to Poland? Or Hungary? Somewhere else? Or - call it quits?
„What's that fire under your ass that makes you go on?“ asks Hinrikus after half an hour. „Not a small flame, anyway,“ replies Jüristo.
Two months later, he sends a message from Lithuania. „We need to get the financing sorted out,“ he writes. „But the parties are all lined up.“