charisma counts

Kaja Kallas went in to lead her party to victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

WHEN I FIRST SET FOOT on Estonian soil 10 years ago, the prime minister of this land was a man by the name of Siim Kallas.

I first saw him on the night of the parliamentary elections, where a new party called Res Publica had won big. But Siim didn’t look upset at all. Instead he was swinging his hands back and forth and sort of half smiling/half grimacing to the TV cameramen, in an “Oh, gosh, isn’t it embarrassing that you are filming me, but that’s your job and this is my job, so, let’s just pretend that I don’t see you…”

I liked him immediately because, well, Siim Kallas is a peculiarly likable fellow. He is one of the chosen few who never age. Go back to those photos of Kallas from the IME project in 1987 and he looks exactly the same. He’s even got the same dapper mustache, which would look odd on any other fellow, but seems to suit him. In fact, I am afraid to know what he looks like without it.

I caught Siim Kallas once at a Lennart Meri Conference where the moderator butchered his name, referring to the gentleman with the two i’s as “Sim”. “Sim this” and “Sim that”. “What do you think about authoritarian capitalism, Sim?” I cringed every time he said it, but Siim (rhymes with scheme) didn’t wince once. Instead he went on and on about something that I cannot remember but sounding very intelligent and using hand gestures that signaled his self-confidence to the audience.

After EU accession happened, I saw less of Siim. They said he’d flown away to Brussels to become a commissioner of something important and Tartu Mayor Andrus Ansip became the new face of the Reform Party and has been for many years, leading Kallas’ political baby through two successful elections.

Yet Ansip’s approval ratings are at an all time low these days. People are looking for alternatives. But Kallas, fortunately, has another baby, a biological one. And these days in Estonia her face is everywhere. Kallas’ baby is not really a baby anymore. Her name is Kaja and she is 35 years old and she is very pretty. Of course, she has a sterling CV with accomplishments as a lawyer and businesswoman, ambition, intelligence, but she also happens to look really good, which is why magazines just can’t help but make Kaja Kallas their cover girl. For weeks (months?) it seems that she has appeared on the cover of all printed material in the nation. The stories about her feed an intense public interest.

“Could she be Estonia’s first female prime minister?” one tabloid even ventured to ask. Hmm. Could she? Even people who despise the current leader have confessed to me. “If she ran, I would vote for her because she’s just so pretty.”

And the problem is, recovering leftist that I am, if given the chance to vote for Kaja Kallas, I might vote for her too, for the same pathetic reason.

It’s not the first time an Estonian female politician has tugged on my heart strings.

First there was Urve Palo, whose short skirt made me an ardent Social Democrat. Then, after the Center Party triumphed in municipal elections, and a very flattering photo of Kadri Simson and her big misty eyes appeared online, I suddenly found myself feeling sympathetic toward the Green Monster. “Maybe that Savisaar guy really does care about the poor and unfortunate people in Estonia,” I caught myself thinking after seeing Kadri’s picture. It was about that time that Marju Lauristin sprinted into my life. Yet it wasn’t her eyes that did it for me. It was her brain. After spending an afternoon in one of her lectures, all I could think about was Lauristin. Lauristin, Lauristin. Lauristin, Lauristin. The way she rattled off statistics! And her passion for knowledge! Why, it was like a feverish dream. In fact, I was so impressed by Marju Lauristin’s dynamic presence and intelligence that I became a Social Democrat again. Until I read another article about Kaja Kallas.

Fortunately for Estonians, I cannot vote. But my ability to be swayed by charismatic females sparked a new and interesting thought. Perhaps women voters are just as easily swayed by male politicians. So that’s the reason my mother keeps on buying all of Bill Clinton’s books? The thought that women might vote for male politicians because they like them in that way astonished me and led me into various unpleasant places. Were any of Estonia’s male politicians attractive? Had it ever led them to electoral victory in the past? I wanted to know more.

I am not the best judge of male attractiveness, but I can basically understand that Brad Pitt is better looking than, say, Elton John. When it comes to Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, George Clooney though, they are all a bunch of dudes to me. And so are Estonia’s male politicians. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Siim Kallas, Edgar Savisaar, Andrus Ansip, Jürgen Ligi, Rein Lang, Juhan Parts, Jaak Aaviksoo, Ken-Marti Vaher, Urmas Paet. They all look slightly different from one another, but their appearances provoke an equal amount of disinterest in me.

Maybe for the women of Estonia it has been another story altogether. Maybe they voted for Siim Kallas because of his fabulous mustache. Or Mart Laar because he was so round and cuddly. Or Andrus Ansip because the ladies of the land like to watch him cross-country ski.

Once when I asked a friend why she voted for Isamaa in 1992, despite having a pretty leftward social outlook, she blushed and told me, “But Isamaa had the handsomest candidates.”

Isamaa was the party that set much of what has become modern Estonia in motion, selected, in part, on looks. Here, I have to ask — how much of history has been decided this way? Is that why Kennedy defeated Nixon? Or Obama defeated Romney? The ladies simply fancied the men who won more?

We talk about politics, we talk about policies and statistics and polls, but the mysterious and paramount ingredient of the heart is ignored in these discussions. The political scientists write their columns and give interviews and provide expert analysis. They act as if the future will be decided on logical decisions and sound governance. Maybe a good chunk of what happens is actually up to a candidate’s sporty physique or pretty blue eyes. In that case, you might as well let me vote in the next election. Don’t worry. I promise I’ll support the most convincing candidate.

This column originally appeared in the collection Mission Estonia in 2013. 

One thought on “charisma counts

  1. Interesting. Consider the royal family in The Netherlands. In the 80’s, they were not really popular and there were people in favor of the country becoming a republic instead of a monarchy. That is, until the heir to the throne, Prince Willem Alexander, married a beautiful Argentinian woman, Máxima Zorregueta. She’s also very intelligent. When Willem became king, Máxima became ‘queen’. So the Dutch people have a beautiful and intelligent queen and the king is appreciated for his good taste. They have three beautiful daughters. The people in favor of a republic instead of a monarchy really have a hard time getting their message through.

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