Estonia – Politicians enter uncharted waters as electoral college fails to elect new president

On Saturday 24 September, Estonia entered yet uncharted waters as the electoral college – following three unsuccessful votes in parliament – failed to elect a president. The term of president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, first elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2011, ends on 8 October 2016, so that politicians need to act fast if they want to find a successor in time. As voting now returns to parliament, deputies continue to face the difficulty of finding a candidate that appeals beyond individual parties.

The Estonia Kontserdisaal - meeting place of the Estonian electoral college | photo via visittallinn.ee

The Estonia Kontserdisaal – meeting place of the Estonian electoral college | photo via visittallinn.ee

Estonia is one of the many parliamentary democracies which have chosen to elect their president indirectly. The first democratic presidential election following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1992 was still held under a special system in which the first round was held by popular vote and a runoff between the front-runners took place in parliament. Since 1996 however, the president is elected entirely indirectly. The first three rounds of voting are held in parliament and a candidate needs an absolute majority of 68 votes (i.e. 2/3 of members) in any round to be elected outright. If no candidate is elected during the first two rounds, a runoff is held between the front-runners of the second round, yet the majority requirement remains. If parliament fails to elect a president, the vote passes to an electoral college consisting of all 101 members of parliament and currently 234 representatives of local government councils (the number of electors is based on the size of the municipality and thus varies, yet only few municipalities send more than one elector). In the electoral college, candidates need an absolute majority to be elected; while the participants of the last round in parliament enter the voting in the electoral college automatically, new candidates can also be nominated. If no candidate achieves a majority in the first round, the second round (fifth round overall) is a runoff between the two front-runners.

In the 4 presidential elections between 1996 and 2011 it was necessary to convene the electoral college on all but one occasion (i.e. the re-election of presidents Ilves) as parliament regularly failed to elect a candidate. In 1996 and 2001, the electoral college needed two rounds to elect a new president and only in 2006 a single round was sufficient. The current situation in Estonia is thus both unprecedented and unexpected.

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The first two rounds of voting in parliament were very much dominated by the tactics of two of the governing parties. The Social Democrats (SDE) had very much hoped that Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas (Reform Party – RE) would concede the presidency to them (as the RE had done in the case of president Ilves who was a SDE member at the time of his election). Nevertheless, despite the chance of nominating non-partisan foreign secretary Marina Kaljurand who enjoyed great public support, RE leadership eventually decided to only support SDE candidate, veteran politician and speaker Eiki Nestor, for the first and round and then put forward former Prime Minister and EU commissioner Siim Kallas in the second round, calling on solidarity from its coalition partner. Kallas had already been set to become Prime Minister instead of Rõivas after the resignation of Andrus Ansip in 2014 but withdrew following allegations concerning his time as director of the Estonian Central Bank in the 1990s. It thus seems that Rõivas’ support for Kallas’ candidacy is thus a way to install him in another high-ranking political post – particularly because it was not fully supported by all RE deputies. The third coalition party, Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL), on the other hand decided to support former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks (non-partisan) together with the conservative Free Party (EV). The Centre Party (KE) – the first party to agree on a candidate – somewhat suprisingly did not nominate long-time party leader Edgar Savisaar but its deputy leader and former minister of education Mailis Reps (who is part of a competing faction within the party). While the Conservative People’s Party (ERKE) designated their leader Mart Helme as their candidate, they failed to gather a sufficient number of MPs to support him.

As expected, parties failed to unite in support for any candidate and the number of abstentions and spoiled ballots is very telling – several RE deputies seem to have refrained from supporting SDE candidate Nestor in the first round and Siim Kallas only gained 45 votes (the combined seat share of RE and SDE) in the second round. Very much counting on a transferal of the vote to the electoral college a third of all deputies abstained from voting in the third round of voting making it impossible for either Reps or Kallas to be elected.

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The vote in the electoral college brought a number of uncertainties for established parties. First and foremost, almost one third of the 335 electors and thus about half of the local government representatives are not members of parties represented in parliament but were elected on the basis of local/independent electoral lists of varying ideological leaning and coherence. The second uncertainty was created by foreign secretary Marina Kaljurand’s decision to resign from her cabinet post and run for president. Having topped public opinion polls for weeks the decision was a strategically excellent move, yet presented a surprise for public and parties alike. In a poll conducted by public broadcaster ERR, Kaljurand had a narrow lead over other candidates among electors and was thus tipped as one of the favourites who likely to go head to head with Siim Kallas in the second round of voting in the electoral college. Several MPs of other parties (including EKRE) had come out in support for Kaljurand’s candidacy and the SDE decided to support her too instead of nominating Nestor again, increasing her chances even more. Third, in contrast to previous elections a third candidate from the rounds in parliament was renominated – Allar Jõks once again received support from IRL and EV meaning that there was another non-partisan candidate with potentially wider appeal in addition to Kaljurand.

These uncertainties produced a surprising result: four of the five candidates (the EKRE finally managed to get enough supporters to nominate Mart Helme) received almost equal support with only 6 votes difference separating front-runner Kallas and the unexpectedly third-placed Kaljurand. KE candidate Mailis Reps on the other hand did surprisingly well with a strong third place even though it was rumoured that party leader Savisaar had tried to convince fellow party members to vote for Kaljurand instead (a move that shows the great divide between the factions led by Savisaar and Kaljurand within the KE). The second round was then held as a runoff between Kallas and Jõks, yet the college eventually failed to elect a new president. Both fell 30 and 34 votes, respectively, short of the required absolute majority. Electors were apparently surprised by the fact that Jõks and not Kaljurand entered the runoff – the high number of blank ballots (60 + 3 invalid votes) shows both their general dissatisfaction with the choices but also the fact that political competition in Estonia, which has been dominated by the Reform Party for the past decade, is changing. New parties have already entered parliament in the last election and current polls see KE and RE head to head – it is not out of the question that the presidential election fiasco will have consequences for the government and end Rõivas’ premiership or party leadership. An additional factor which played out in the electoral college might be the fact that the local administration reform – which will mean that municipalities are merged and therefore must also trigger a change in the presidential election law – is still contested was far from favourably received. The support from primarily local representatives for non-partisan candidates Kaljurand and Jõks as well as the high number of blank ballots could – if they in fact came from local electors – be a protest against the reform bill.

Parliament will reconvene on 3 October to elect a new president and while it is yet unclear who will run for president, politicians and experts agree that all previous candidates are now metaphorically ‘burned’ and new faces are needed if parties want to save face. In case parties fail to elect a president by the end of Ilves term, this will trigger one of the most complicated stipulations for acting presidents in existence: Speaker Eiki Nestor will take over duties as acting president. For this time, however, he will have to give up both the position of speaker and his seat in parliament – subsequently a replacement deputy must be appointed and sworn in and a new speaker must be elected who will then preside over the next rounds of presidential elections. Irrespective of when a new president is elected, a reform of the presidential election law is now inevitable and will invite calls for a popular election of the president once again.

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