Estonia – Six weeks before the presidential elections, there is no clear front-runner

The date for Estonia’s next presidential election has been set for 29 August 2016, with 24 September determined as a possible follow-up date should voting in parliament prove inconclusive. Incumbent Toomas Hendrik Ilves is not allowed to run again, having served two consecutive terms from 2006-2011 and 2011-2016. Over the last year, a field of potential candidates has blossomed, yet until now the it is still difficult to tell the wheat from the weeds or to speculate who will become Ilves’ successor.

Election of the Estonian president 2006 in the electoral college | © Riigikogu 2006

Election of the Estonian president 2006 in the electoral college | © Riigikogu 2006

The Estonian president is elected by parliament and except for the 1992 election – when the first round was exceptionally held by popular vote with a runoff held in parliament – parliament has three attempts to elect a candidate with a two-thirds majority of its members, i.e. 68 out of 101 members. If parliament fails to elect a candidate, the election passes on to an electoral college consisting of all members of parliament and roughly two-and-a-half times as many representatives from local parliaments and city councils (the number of representatives is based on population size – in 2016 there will be 234 local representatives). In the electoral college, only an absolute majority is necessary to elect a candidate in two rounds of voting. New candidates can be suggested in the first and second round of voting in parliament and in the first round of voting in the electoral college, making it possible for surprise candidates to emerge (and in the case of Arnold Rüütel, president 2001-2006, even win) at a relative late stage.

Parties, candidates and the public

Until now, there is only one confirmed candidate for the presidency: The Centre Party has nominated Mailis Reps, a 41-year old former minister of education and deputy chairman of the party who supports popular presidential elections. Interestingly, Reps beat long-time party leader and one-time Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar in the party internal ballot for the nomination by a 90:78 margin. The Centre Party however remains an outcast in the Estonian parliament – despite its continuous electoral success – and is eyed with suspicion by other parties due to its close links with the Russian minority and contacts to Vladimir Putin’s ‘United Russia’. Thus, it is unlikely that Reps will eventually take the presidency.

The names of several other candidates have been mentioned over the last year, yet as 21 members of parliament are needed to receive a nomination, only the Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Roivas would be able to formally nominate another candidate of their own accord (the internal nomination of Mart Helme by the ‘Conservative People’s Party’ which holds only seven seats in the Riigikogu is thus largely inconsequential). Roivas on the other hand will likely not try to claim the presidential office for his own party but give it to either of the junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats or the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union. The Social Democrats have informally nominated Riigikogu speaker and veteran politician Eiki Nestor as their own candidate, while the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union want to put forward former Chancellor of Justice, Allar Jõks. Public opinion however still complicates the situation for the coalition. Despite having never been formally nominated or endorsed, foreign secretary Marina Kaljurand (independent; nominated to the cabinet by the Reform Party) has topped opinion polls for months as the public’s preferred president. Former Prime Minister and EU Commissioner as well as Reform Party co-founder Siim Kallas has also declared his willingness to be a presidential candidate but has not received any endorsement from the party so far. A joint candidate of Reform Party, Social Democrats and Pro Patria and Res Publica seems to be the most likely outcome of the election, yet it will likely only be decided in the electoral college (until now, Ilves’ reelection in 2011 was the only time that the Riigikogu elected a president without the help of the college).

Marina Kaljurand (middle) with Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (l.) and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (r.) | © president.ee

Marina Kaljurand (middle) with Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (l.) and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (r.) | © president.ee

The future of the presidency: Popular elections unlikely

President Ilves, although not always unequivocally liked by parties and citizens, leaves large foot steps to follow. He is an internationally renowned expert of cyber security and as a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States brought a great deal of diplomatic skill to the role which helped him to make the country considerably more visible. The discussion about a future president is very much influenced by that role, with Prime Minister Roivas and others stressing that any potential candidate would need to have international experience and know their way around issue of foreign and defence policy (especially the latter has been rising in importance for the small Baltic nation in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and disputes with Russia over borders). In turn, Mailis Reps, who already as a education minister was criticised for lack of experience, has little to offer in this regard and thus stressed that in her view the president should be more active in domestic politics – a view not shared by the majority of politicians and very much counter to the development of constitutional practice over the last 20 years as my own research showed. Reps proposal to introduce popular presidential elections, a change equally favoured by Mart Helme of the ‘Conservative People’s Party’ is thus also unlikely to be implemented – previous projects for constitutional amendments proposed by the Centre Party as well as the first presidents, Lennart Meri, were all unsuccessful.

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