On 3 October 2016, Kersti Kaljulaid was elected the first female president of Estonia. Following the failure of both the Riigikogu (parliament) and the Valimiskogu (electoral college) to agree on a successor to Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016), Kaljulaid was elected as the all-party compromise candidate when the election returned to parliament. Kaljulaid follows a three very different different presidents who – despite being consecutively less active politically – all left their mark relatively early on in their term. Since taking the oath of office on 10 October 2016, Kaljulaid has remained largely in the background. So far, she has mainly followed in the footsteps of her predecessor, yet her recent speech at the opening of parliament could be the first step in carving out an independent profile.
Given the circumstances of her nomination, Kaljulaid was relatively unkown to the public when she was elected. The (comparatively rare) Estonian opinion polls showed only a very moderate increase in public trust during the first months in office (48% in October 2016 to 66% in April 2017), staying behind the popularity of her predecessor and hitherto least trusted among Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Contrary to her predecessors, Kaljulaid was not a professional politician before taking office. As a former Estonian Auditor at the European Court of Auditors and one-time economic adviser to the Prime Minister, she nevertheless possess some relevant, albeit limited political experience.
To date, Kaljulaid has only had few opportunities to prove herself in her new role, yet likely the most important occured only a month after her inauguration. After a no-confidence motion forced Prime Minister Taavi Roivas to resign, the government of Reform Party, Isaama and Res Publica, and the Social Democrats collapsed, paving the way for a government led by the Centre Party. President Ilves had still publicly declared his mistrust in then party leader and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar and the party – despite often finishing first or second in parliamentary elections – had long ostracised by its competitors due to its sympathies with the ethnic Russian population and Russia’s leadership, Kaljulaid invited all parties for consultations, yet was not involved in the actual negotiations for a new coalition. Although Estonian presidents only have little control over the government formation process and appoint those governments that emerge from parliamentary arithmetic, previous presidents still had some indirect influence on the nomination of individual ministers. Kaljulaid seems to have remained entirely passive and merely accepted the new coalition, although some friction was foreseeable early on (e.g. on the introduction of popular presidential elections – the project forced by the Centre party was however shelved indefinitely in January this year).
A second opportunity for came in December 2016, when Kaljulaid signed off amendments to a number tax laws despite protest by the opposition and a number of large interest groups, which not only criticised the contents of the law but also the procedure in which in had been passed (that did not allow full participation by the opposition). Kaljulaid defended her decision stating that she did not have the power to challenge individual paragraphs of the amendments [the Estonian president only has a block veto] and that these would better be checked by the Chancellor of Justice. This highlights a major difference to her predecessor Ilves; while Ilves too mainly relied on the Chancellor of Justice to ensure the constitutionality of legislation and generally remained uninvolved in the content of legislation, he did in fact veto bills because the correct procedure had been violated and liaised with lawmakers through his staff to pre-emptively tackle potential problems of constitutionality. Kaljulaid however vetoed a law on the so-called sugar tax that would have introduced an – arguably unconstitutional – exception for a Tallink Group cruise liners
Since then, Kaljulaid only rarely voiced her opinion and remained very cautious in public statements. The problem with finding her voice and handling situations such as the tax law amendments might also lie in the turnover of staff in the presidential administration that followed her inauguration. Since the mid-1990s, key staff in the Estonian presidential office has been remarkably stable, thus preserving institutional memory and contacts. Kaljulaid managed her first international visits without any hiccups and largely followed in the footsteps of predecessor Ilves in promoting Estonia as a leader in digital technologies, yet her other public statements have otherwise been criticised as too vague or missing the mark.
In this context, her recent speech at the opening of parliament appears to be a promising exception and potential attempt to carve out an independent profile. In particular, she highlighted the responsibilities of politicians towards the public and the need for political parties to make their finances transparent (a veiled criticism of the Centre party that has been at the centre of a number of allegations and investigations over the past year). Furthermore and most strikingly, Kaljulaid explained “that being proud of being an Estonian cannot be monopolised by anyone” and that “[t]here is no blue, black and white gene pool”. Thereby, she addressed on the of the most long-standing issues in Estonian politics and society – how to deal with the ethnic Russian minority (about 25% of the population are ethnic Russians, many of which hold Russian but not Estonian citizenship).
Both issues would lend themselves well to establishing Kaljulaid as a moral leader – they are timely and relevant, yet general enough to develop over the course of her term in office. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, both are largely within the remit of the role of the presidency as it has developed over the last 25 years. Kaljulaid will be able to launch some concrete initiatives (first president Meri for instance instituted a roundtable on minorities) which can bear fruit merely by raising public awareness rather than through the use of her (limited) formal powers.