Estonia – Will Kersti Kaljulaid become more political?

It has been a little more than two years since Kersti Kaljulaid was elected as Estonia’s fourth president since the end of the Soviet occupation. While her election was in many ways remarkable – both parliament and the electoral college failed on five occasions to elect a successor for Toomas Hendrik Ilves, triggering a minor constitutional crisis and a reform of the electoral system – she has been considerably less visible in day-to-day politics than her predecessors. As the next parliamentary elections draw closer, it is not clear whether she will choose to pursue a similar (or even more) apolitical stance or show at least some political preferences.

President Kersti Kaljulaid speaking at the opening of the Estonian parliament, 10 September 2018 / image via president.ee © Erik Peinar

During her first year in office, Kaljulaid remained largely passive – she refrained from playing an active part in the formation of the government shortly after her election and shied away from more controversial issues. The latter also applies to her second year: Kaljulaid (successfully) continued to play the role of global ambassador for “E-stonia” (Estonia as a world leader in digital services) and – together with her Baltic colleagues – repeatedly raised the issue of the region’s national security vis-a-vis Russian aggression with Western (NATO) partners. On the other hand, she failed to follow up on some more critical remarks from her first speech at the opening of parliament in September 2017 in actions or (further) words. For instance, she stressed that ethnic Russian residents of the country were just as Estonian as the ethnic Estonian population. However, the only notable initiative in addressing this issue seems to have been a one-month relocation of her office to Narva (a city dominated by the ethnic Russian population).

During the most controversial political discussion in Estonian politics during the last year, she remained remarkedly quiet. In May 2017 (apparently authorised by a resolution dating back to the year 2000), the government launched a consultation to find the most suitable location for a large pulp mill near Tartu (the country’s second largest city). However, the plans were opposed by a great number of environmental NGOs and local resident groups. Eventually, the government decided the shelve the plans in June this year. Thereby, Kaljulaid failed to comment on the debate apart from a few of vacuous remarks.

Kaljulaid once again used her speech at the opening of parliament in September this year to express concerns over some government reforms. In particular, this concerned a potential privatisation of health insurance provision and further reduction in the welfare state. However, given last year’s track record, it is unclear whether this will result in any attempts to influence policy or to actively avert a change in the status quo. It is likewise doubtful whether Kaljulaid’s comments can be interpreted as cues to political parties with regard to the upcoming parliamentary elections in March 2019. Over the last months, the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) – a national-conservative party that entered parliament for the first time in 2015 – has gained strongly in opinion polls and may emerge as the second largest party.

The Estonian president has two attempts to nominate a candidate for prime minister after elections and can thus have a decisive influence on government formation – especially as electoral results do not always allow the largest party to form a coalition (in about a quarter of governments formed since 1992, the prime minister was not from the largest party). Therefore, we should closely monitor Kaljulaid’s behaviour and statements in the run-up to the parliamentary election. She is unlikely to be as outspoken about her coalition preferences or dislike of particular candidate as her predecessor was in 2010, yet it may still help us to understand how she will work with the next government and whether she will become more active in the future.

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