Estonia – Reforming the presidential election: A neverending story?

Estonia has debated the way in which the presidency should be elected since its creation by the constitutional convention in 1991-1992, After several unsuccessful initiatives and cosmetic changes throughout the years, the failure to elect a president in 5 rounds of voting in 2016 finally appears to have given the reformers sufficient momentum. Nevertheless, to date neither the new system nor the way it will be introduced is clear and there is still a minor chance the process will come to naught, thus continuing the ‘neverending story’ of presidential election reform in Estonia.

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

The Estonian constitutional assembly debated the presidency at length. After many drafts for the new constitution included a powerful and popularly elected presidency, the assembly eventually chose a strongly parliamentarian draft that included an indirect presidential election by parliament and an electoral college. To appease the public and some critics of the constitution, the first presidential election was however held by semi-popular vote: The public voted on candidates in the first round and the Riigikogu (the unicameral parliament) then decided between the two frontrunners. Since 1996, Estonian presidents have been elected through an entirely indirect process. There are three rounds of voting in the Riigikogu in which an absolute two-thirds majority (68/101 deputies) is required to elect a president (n.b. the third round just includes the two frontrunners from the second round). Failing that, the election is handed to the Valimiskogu (electoral college) consisting of the 101 members of the Riigikogu and roughly 2.3 times as many representatives of local councils (sending 1-10 councillors each based on population size). The Valimiskogu then has two rounds to elect a winner with an absolute majority. Thereby, the first round automatically includes the candidates from the third round in the Riigikogu and can include newly nominated candidates; the second round once again only includes the two frontrunners.

Since the constitutional assembly, there has been sizeable support in the Estonian population to introduce popular elections. Former presidents Lennart Meri (1993-2001) and Arnold Rüütel (2001-2006) called for popular elections and proposals were floated again and again. However, they were never supported by a majority of parties and were regularly voted down or shelved given more pressing political problems. One of the most important factors in this appears to be politicians’ idea of Estonia as a parliamentary republic which would be thrown out of balance by introducing a popularly elected president. To date, the only successful change to presidential election procedures happened in 2010, yet had little substantive effect. Up until then, local council did not follow a coherent set of rules when selecting their representatives for the Valimiskogu. The amendment supported by all parties bar the Centre Party (which stood to lose the most) now stipulated that there was only to be a single round of voting on the representatives. Officially, this was to ensure that larger parties would not be able to claim a disproportionate share of electors. Nevertheless, as only the city councils of Tartu and Tallinn send more than two electors (4 and 10, respectively), this was rather an attempt to curb the Centre Party’s traditionally large influence in these councils.

The failure to elect a successor for president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016) in five rounds of voting – the election had to be handed back to the Riigikogu after voting in the Valimiskogu remained inconclusive – finally gave reformers sufficient momentum, albeit only in combination with an impending territorial reform that would reduce the number of local councillors by half if the current system was kept. However, two reform attempts were necessary to start the process. An initiative to introduce direct presidential elections with a two-round run-off was proposed by the Centre Party in early 2017 but was withdrawn soon after. Only after further negotiations between government parties were new proposals worked out and are currently debated in coalition working group.

Should a reform in fact take place, then a direct presidential election appears out of the question – despite the Centre Party’s insistence, its coalition partners just cannot be persuaded to even consider the proposal. Likewise, it appears that the ratio of local electors vs Riigikogu deputies will remain the same if not increase (ratios of 2:1 to 3:1 are currently debated). This would of course mean that local municipalities would send more electors than before – likely a minimum of two (instead of one). Furthermore, there seems to be more and more support to transfer the whole election to the Valimiskogu (only one out of five elections was completed in parliament in any case). The latter proposal was already once presented by president Lennart Meri in the late 1990s, yet was torn apart by media and politicians alike. The voting procedure, too, is likely to change – a preliminary draft foresees a maximum of five rounds of voting with the worst performing candidates being consecutively eliminated and a relative majority requirement in the last round (n.b. this is similar to the Latvian system).

These proposals for change go above and beyond the simpler solutions suggested after the 2016 election debacle, e.g. merely removing the absolute majority requirement from the last round of voting in the Riigikogu. Apart from the fact that all proposals are still at a draft stage (and include some controversial changes unrelated to the election procedure, e.g. a limitation of incumbency to a single seven-year term instead of two consecutive five-year terms), there are still some hurdles facing their implementation. An absolute majority of votes is necessary to the change the constitution and it is not guaranteed that the government coalition will be able to persuade the rest of the Riigikogu (including some of its own deputies) of the reform proposals. Furthermore, the presidential election law will need to amended as well. Thus, it remains to be seen whether there will be a substantive change after all or whether this will simply be another chapter in the neverending story that is presidential election reform in Estonia.

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