On Monday, 3 October, the Estonian Riigikogu elected Kersti Kaljulaid as the country’s new and first female president. Kaljulaid’s election comes after both parliament’s and subsequently the electoral college’s failure to elect a candidate with the required majority. Kaljulaid, although supported by five out of six parliamentary parties, entered the race as a dark horse – it is yet unclear how she will fill her new role but the long way to her election is likely to prompt a change to the mode of presidential election in Estonia.
The failure of both parliament and electoral college to elect a president in five rounds of voting was an unprecedented event in Estonian political history. Politicians from all parties – having faced wide-spread criticism over their inability to agree on a candidate – were quick to call for a joint, preferably non-partisan candidate to end the election fiasco. The Riigikogu Council of Elders (meeting of the six party faction leaders) was unofficially tasked with finding a new president (all previous six candidates were considered ‘burned’ through the unsuccessful election process) and soon narrowed down their selection to two people: Kersti Kaljulaid, former Estonian Auditor at the European Court of Auditors and one-time economic adviser to the Prime Minister, and Jüri Luik, the Estonian ambassador to Russia and a former minister of foreign affairs and defence. Eventually, the Council endorsed Kaljulaid and five of the six parliamentary groups followed by expressing support. Overall, 90 out of 101 MPs signed Kaljulaid’s nomination form – the eleven MPs refusing to sign being all seven deputies of the Conservative People’s Party (ERKE) and four Centre Party deputies. As a candidate needs 21 signatures from MPs to be nominated and an MP cannot support two nominations at the same time, no other candidate was nominated. In the end, Kaljulaid was elected with 81 votes and 17 abstentions (three MPs did not attend the vote). While this is lower than the number of MPs who supported her nomination, it is technically the strongest mandate given to a president so far – Toomas Hendrik Ilves was re-elected in 2011 with 72. However, Ilves was elected in the first round of voting in parliament.
Kaljulaid is still largely unknown to the Estonian public as she has not held any front-line role in politics so far. Other than her two last predecessors who were party members when they were elected, she is non-partisan (according to the state broadcaster ERR she was nevertheless a member of the predecessor of the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union – IRL – in 2001-2004). In the run-up to yesterday’s election, it also emerged that she had been approached about a potential candidacy for president over the summer but declined. Her political views are generally considered to be liberal on social matters and more conservative economically, yet do not clearly align with any political party. In her first interview after her election, Kaljulaid stressed her commitment to equal treatment of Estonia’s sizeable number of ethnic Russians as well as her support for upholding economic sanctions against Russia. Previously, she also mentioned issues such as the gender pay gap and women’s role in society as well as corruption as issues she would like to address. While she has acknowledged the Estonian presidency’s limited formal powers and direct influence over day-to-day policy-making, Kaljulaid is unlikely to be a comfortable president for government and opposition parties alike. Her eloquence and outsider status will likely help her to quickly garner greater public recognition and support so that she can effectively use speeches and other non-formal ways of activism to become an active check-and-balance vis-a-vis other institutions. This becomes even more a possibility given the overall similarity of her election to that of Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga in 1999 – first presented as a compromise candidate after several failed rounds of election, the non-partisan Vike-Freiberga who also lacked significant political experience (she was previously a psychology professor in Canada) soon became arguably one of the most prominent politicians in the country.
Irrespective of how Kaljulaid will interpret her new role once she is inaugurated on 10 October, the long way towards her election will have consequences for how Estonian presidents are election. Before her election on Monday, 31 MPs presented a motion to speaker Eiki Nestor to introduce popular presidential elections. Such initiatives – the last one was submitted by the Centre Party in 2013 and subsequently rejected – are however unlikely to succeed. A more likely solution will be to lower the majority required in the last round of election in the electoral college (i.e. a relative rather than an absolute majority) which is already common practice in most other parliamentary republics (e.g. Germany or Hungary). The electoral college itself could also be reformed and potentially reduced to give parties greater planning certainty or at least establish a parity between parliamentary and local council representatives. Nevertheless, for now it appears that there is no cross-party consensus on the matter and a solution might very well only come after the parliamentary election of 2019 where the presidential election debacle of 2016 will surely feature in campaigns.