Tag Archives: Estonia

Estonia – Parliament elects first female president following electoral college failure

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.

Estonian president-elect Kersti Kaljulaid | photo via riigikogu.ee

Estonian president-elect Kersti Kaljulaid (centre)| photo via riigikogu.ee

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.

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.

estonian-presidential-election-results-2016_rounds-1-to-5

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.

seat-distribution-in-the-estonian-electoral-college

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.

Estonia – Six weeks before the presidential elections, there is no clear front-runner

The date for Estonia’s next presidential election has been set for 29 August 2016, with 24 September determined as a possible follow-up date should voting in parliament prove inconclusive. Incumbent Toomas Hendrik Ilves is not allowed to run again, having served two consecutive terms from 2006-2011 and 2011-2016. Over the last year, a field of potential candidates has blossomed, yet until now the it is still difficult to tell the wheat from the weeds or to speculate who will become Ilves’ successor.

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

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

The Estonian president is elected by parliament and except for the 1992 election – when the first round was exceptionally held by popular vote with a runoff held in parliament – parliament has three attempts to elect a candidate with a two-thirds majority of its members, i.e. 68 out of 101 members. If parliament fails to elect a candidate, the election passes on to an electoral college consisting of all members of parliament and roughly two-and-a-half times as many representatives from local parliaments and city councils (the number of representatives is based on population size – in 2016 there will be 234 local representatives). In the electoral college, only an absolute majority is necessary to elect a candidate in two rounds of voting. New candidates can be suggested in the first and second round of voting in parliament and in the first round of voting in the electoral college, making it possible for surprise candidates to emerge (and in the case of Arnold Rüütel, president 2001-2006, even win) at a relative late stage.

Parties, candidates and the public

Until now, there is only one confirmed candidate for the presidency: The Centre Party has nominated Mailis Reps, a 41-year old former minister of education and deputy chairman of the party who supports popular presidential elections. Interestingly, Reps beat long-time party leader and one-time Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar in the party internal ballot for the nomination by a 90:78 margin. The Centre Party however remains an outcast in the Estonian parliament – despite its continuous electoral success – and is eyed with suspicion by other parties due to its close links with the Russian minority and contacts to Vladimir Putin’s ‘United Russia’. Thus, it is unlikely that Reps will eventually take the presidency.

The names of several other candidates have been mentioned over the last year, yet as 21 members of parliament are needed to receive a nomination, only the Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Roivas would be able to formally nominate another candidate of their own accord (the internal nomination of Mart Helme by the ‘Conservative People’s Party’ which holds only seven seats in the Riigikogu is thus largely inconsequential). Roivas on the other hand will likely not try to claim the presidential office for his own party but give it to either of the junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats or the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union. The Social Democrats have informally nominated Riigikogu speaker and veteran politician Eiki Nestor as their own candidate, while the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union want to put forward former Chancellor of Justice, Allar Jõks. Public opinion however still complicates the situation for the coalition. Despite having never been formally nominated or endorsed, foreign secretary Marina Kaljurand (independent; nominated to the cabinet by the Reform Party) has topped opinion polls for months as the public’s preferred president. Former Prime Minister and EU Commissioner as well as Reform Party co-founder Siim Kallas has also declared his willingness to be a presidential candidate but has not received any endorsement from the party so far. A joint candidate of Reform Party, Social Democrats and Pro Patria and Res Publica seems to be the most likely outcome of the election, yet it will likely only be decided in the electoral college (until now, Ilves’ reelection in 2011 was the only time that the Riigikogu elected a president without the help of the college).

Marina Kaljurand (middle) with Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (l.) and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (r.) | © president.ee

Marina Kaljurand (middle) with Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (l.) and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (r.) | © president.ee

The future of the presidency: Popular elections unlikely

President Ilves, although not always unequivocally liked by parties and citizens, leaves large foot steps to follow. He is an internationally renowned expert of cyber security and as a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States brought a great deal of diplomatic skill to the role which helped him to make the country considerably more visible. The discussion about a future president is very much influenced by that role, with Prime Minister Roivas and others stressing that any potential candidate would need to have international experience and know their way around issue of foreign and defence policy (especially the latter has been rising in importance for the small Baltic nation in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and disputes with Russia over borders). In turn, Mailis Reps, who already as a education minister was criticised for lack of experience, has little to offer in this regard and thus stressed that in her view the president should be more active in domestic politics – a view not shared by the majority of politicians and very much counter to the development of constitutional practice over the last 20 years as my own research showed. Reps proposal to introduce popular presidential elections, a change equally favoured by Mart Helme of the ‘Conservative People’s Party’ is thus also unlikely to be implemented – previous projects for constitutional amendments proposed by the Centre Party as well as the first presidents, Lennart Meri, were all unsuccessful.

Estonia – New government takes office but cracks in coalition are already visible

On 8 April, more than five week after the parliamentary elections on 1 March, Estonia’s new government passed its vote of confidence in parliament and was formally appointed by the president on the next day. The government continues the cooperation of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas’ Reform Party with the Social Democratic Party; yet the coalition now also includes the ‘Isaama and Res Publica Union’ (IRL). The coalition talks did not proceed without difficulty and some observers doubt that the coalition will hold for the whole length of the legislative term.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (centre left) and Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (centre right) with the new cabinet | © Office of the Estonian President 2015

The elections of 1 March saw not only unexpected vote losses for all major parties but also two previously unrepresented parties enter parliament. Although the Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas emerged as the clear winner (finishing 3 seats before its main opponent, the Centre Party), it lost 3 seats which – together with the 4-seat loss of its coalition partner – meant that a third party would need to be included. While both the IRL (the Reform Party’s coalition partner 2007-2014) and the newcomer ‘Free Party’ on their own would have been able to contribute the required number of seats for a majority government, Rõivas soon announced that coalition talks would be held between all four parties. The idea for such a super-sized coalition seems to have originated in talks between Rõivas and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Ilves has generally not played a very active role in coalition negotiations and rarely interfered in day-to-day political decision-making, yet now unusually vocally suggested that the new government should have a ‘broad parliamentary basis’. Ilves surely remembered the more than fragile coalition between Reform Party, IRL and Social Democrats which was characterised by continuous disagreements eventually leading to the exclusion of the Social Democrats from the government. On the other hand, the inclusion of the ‘Free Party’ would have enhanced the position of the Reform Party with which Ilves has formed strong bonds while in office vis-a-vis the other coalition partners.

Eventually, the ‘Free Party’ left the coalition negotiations prematurely after its calls for more direct democracy and tax increases found no resonance with the other parties. Yet negotiations between the remaining three parties did not go smoothly either. Similar to the first edition of the three party coalition, the Social Democrats found themselves opposed by the two other parties an many issues and although not all of them have been resolved in the coalition agreement, the fact that their veteran politician Eiki Nestor was made speaker of parliament was one of the key elements in securing their support for the government.

Overall, the government hardly had a smooth start. First disagreements concerning the Cohabitation Act (i.e. legalisation of same-sex marriage passed in the last legislature) surfaced immediately after its inauguration and the abstention of Social Democrat deputy Jevgeni Ossinovski in the cabinet’s vote of confidence caused a further scandal. The ministerial line-up was also subject to some public criticism as the number of women in the government dropped from six to only two. This is particularly relevant as Estonia which was recently named as having one of the biggest gender paygaps in the EU. The coalition agreement, too, only includes little on how to remedy this problem. Therefore, some experts and prominent party representatives have already questioned whether the coalition would be able to survive the full legislative term.

Last, the period of government formation was overshadowed by the illness of Tallinn mayor and Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar. Following a streptococcus infection, Savisaar’s leg needed to be amputated and he remains in a critical care unit. As Savisaar has been party leader since the early 90s, the party is still in a phase of re-orientation. Compared to previous coalition talks – during which Savisaar demanded that his party be included in the government – the Centre Party (which due to its russophile position has no chance of being included in any coalition despite its size) remained largely silent during the coalition talks.

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Cabinet Composition – Rõivas II

roivas 2015 allocation

Prime Minister – Taavi Rõivas, 35, Reform Party
Minister of Foreign Affairs – Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, 39, Reform Party
Minister of Internal Affairs – Hanno Pevkur, 38, Reform Party
Minister of Defense – Sven Mikser, 41, Social Democrats
Minister of Education and Research – Jürgen Ligi, 55, Reform Party
Minister of Justice – Urmas Reinsalu, 39, IRL
Minister of the Environment – Marko Pomerants, 50, IRL
Minister of Culture – Indrek Saar, 42, Social Democrats
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure – Kristen Michal, 39, Reform Party
Minister of Entrepreneurship – Urve Palo, 44, Social Democrats
Minister of Rural Affairs – Urmas Kruuse, 49, Reform Party
Minister of Finance – Sven Sester, 45, IRL
Minister of Health and Labour – Rannar Vassiljev, 33, Social Democrats
Minister of Social Protection – Margus Tsahkna, 37, IRL
Minister of Public Administration – Arto Aas, 34, Reform Party

Estonia – Ruling Reform Party wins election but coalition loses parliamentary majority

On Sunday 1 March Estonia held regular parliamentary elections. The Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, which has dominated the country’s political scene for the last decade, once again managed to win the election. Yet as both the Reform Party and its coalition partner, the Social Democrats, lost several seats, they will now have to look for another party to stay in power – potential options include a revival of the cooperation with the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) together with which they held power between 2007 and 2009 and the newcomer ‘ Free Party’.

EST election 2015

The topics of the election campaign were dominated by the Ukraine crisis and economic issues. The Reform Party, the Social Democrats as well as the IRL were particularly keen to stress the former as well as their commitment to NATO and EU. This was not only due to the general salience of the issue among voters, but also in order to distance themselves (and discredit) the Centre Party. The party is generally considered ‘ Russia-friendly’ and the main, albeit unofficial, representation of Estonia’s ethnic Russians. Despite the unwillingness of the Centre Party’s leader, Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar (who has led the party since the early 90’s), to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine/Crimea the party came head-to-head with the Reform Party in the latest polls and eventually even gained a seat. Nevertheless, the Centre Party is regularly shunned by other parties (quite similar to the Harmony Centre in Latvia) and has no chance of participating in the new government. The Centre Party also differed from other parties by vocally opposing the current 20% flat tax system – although the Social Democrats also called for a progressive tax system, they are more likely to give up these demands if it means that they can stay in government.

After only four parties were represented in the last parliament, two new parties now entered the Riigikogu – the liberal-conservative ‘Free Party’ and the national-conservative/populist ‘Conservative People’s Party’ winning and eight and seven seats respectively. Due to its anti-immigration and eurosceptic policies, the latter is unlikely to be able to cooperate with any party in the parliament. The ‘Free Party’ however, might hold the key to keep Prime Minister Rõivas in power (see below). It is noteworthy that about 30% of voters cast their vote via the internet which constitutes a new record since e-voting was introduced in 2005. Furthermore, in contrast to other Central and East European countries turnout remained stable and even increased slightly from previous years.

It is almost inevitable that president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who since his first election in 2006 has been particularly close to the Reform Party (despite being a former leader of the Social Democrats), will ask Taavi Rõivas to form another government following customary exploratory talks. A continuation of the coalition between the Reform Party and the Social Democrats appears to be a done deal, yet it remains to be seen which party will contribute the additional six seats required for a majority. In terms of ideological closeness, the most natural coalition partner for the Reform Party would be the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), yet given their seat share might be able to make greater demands. Furthermore, the last coalition between the three parties broke down due to disagreements (Reform Party and IRL continued as a minority government) which Rõivas will be keen to avoid.  The ‘Free Party’ on the other hand is also still compatible with the current coalition parties might – also due to its smaller seat share and resulting weaker leverage – be a more likely choice as coalition partner.

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More information (in Estonian) on the website of the Estonian Electoral Commission:
http://rk2015.vvk.ee/

Presidents in the Baltic states and their activism in foreign & defence policy

The crisis in Ukraine has led to a an increased focus of media attention on the Baltic states and their geopolitical position vis-a-vis Russia. Interestingly. the presidents of these states – Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Andris Bērziņš (Latvia) and Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia) – have recently taken the lead in demanding greater military protection and other guarantees for their countries. Hereby, their activism cannot be explained by their formal prerogatives in foreign policy and defence (which are not only limited but also vary between countries). Rather, the reason for their recent public engagement can be seen in a combination of factors specific to the political situation in each country.

Presidents Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Bērziņš (Latvia), and Ilves (Estonia) and NATO General Secretary Rasmussen during a visit to Camp Adazi in Latvia | photo via wikimedia commons

In line with international convention the constitutions of all Baltic States define presidents as the countries’ highest representatives in foreign relations and charge them with appointing and recalling diplomats. While these stipulations are comparatively vague, they generally do not give presidents much room for discretionary decision-making. Only the Lithuanian president is vested with the power to ‘decide on basic matters of foreign policy’ and conduct foreign policy together with the government, whereas in Latvia and Estonia this is left to the government. The Lithuanian and Latvian president are also formally Commander-in-Chief (the Estonian president is ‘Supreme Commander’ which recent constitutional changes have transformed into a purely ceremonial role) and constitutions stipulate a number of relatively vague ‘reserve rights’ in case of an armed attack on the country.

Of course, one also needs to take into account presidents’ general position in the polity. Hereby, the indirectly elected president of Estonia is the least powerful and has become a merely ceremonial head of state since the start of Ilves’ presidency. The president of Latvia is also elected by parliament yet possesses a few more prerogatives – particularly in legislation and government formation – than his Estonian counterpart. The Lithuanian presidency is generally the most powerful among the three Baltic states. This is not only due to its independent popular mandate but also because office-holders (particular incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite) have been able to extend their powers informally by interpreting ambiguous constitutional stipulations in their favour.

Nevertheless, these differences and similarities in formal prerogatives alone cannot quite explain why all three presidents are currently so active (at least publicly) with regards to foreign and defence policy. Rather, the explanation appears to lie in current political development in all countries.

Estonia only recently inaugurated a new government under the leadership of 34-year old Taavi Rõivas who yet has to find himself in the position of Prime Minister and despite taking over the leadership of his party still lacks political authority. President Ilves on the other hand previously served as an ambassador and Foreign Minister and has build up a reputation as an international expert on cyber-security, so that he can claim greater authority on the matter.

In Latvia, president Bērziņš was first publicly criticised for not returning quickly from his holiday to call and chair a meeting of the National Security Council after the crisis in Ukraine broke. However, since then he has also repeatedly voiced the need for greater military protection for Latvia and his approval ratings have improved. His actions therefore appear to be driven by public demand. This might appear counter-intuitive for an indirectly elected president, yet may actually improve his weight vis-a-vis the government whose new Prime Minister who – similar to Rõivas in Estonia – still lacks authority.

While formally vested with the most powers in foreign policy and defence, the main reason for Dalia Grybauskaite’s activism is the fact that she is currently running for re-election. After she already accused the Russian government of orchestrating a smear campaign against her earlier this year, her activism in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis could help her to once again win the elections without having to enter a run-off. Several representatives of government parties have also recently been criticised for defending Russia’s actions towards Ukraine. For Grybauskaite (who is in cohabitation with the government) this creates another opportunity to strengthen her position vis-a-vis the cabinet.

In sum, developments specific to every rather than constitutional powers can explain the fact that currently all Baltic presidents have chosen to play a more exposed role. Also, irrespective of how strongly they call for further military guarantees for their countries, they are also in the advantageous position that they do not have to ‘deliver’ – government and parliament are still the institutions that are eventually required and responsible for implementing any policy.

Estonia – New government under leadership of EU’s youngest Prime Minister formed

Until Andrus Ansip resigned his resignation in early March, his intention was to pave the way for a successor. However, after his designated successor, EU Commissioner Siim Kallas, dropped out Ansip’s Reform Party switched plans and asked President Ilves to appoint 34 year-old Taavi Rõivas to head the new government. While Rõivas is not the youngest Prime Minister in Estonia’s recent history and has been tipped as the new Reform Party leader, the extent of his authority over the party and the cabinet is unclear.

President Ilves (left) congratulates Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas on his appointment | photo © Raigo Pajula via www.president.ee

When Andrus Ansip announced his resignation as Prime Minister he had been in office for almost nine years (making him longest serving Prime Minister in the EU). The reasons for his resignation was to pave a way for a new leader that would Ansip’s centre-right ‘Reform Party’ into the 2015 parliamentary elections. The designated successor was EU Commissioner Siim Kallas (himself Prime Minister 2002-2003) with whom Ansip – pending approval by the European Parliament – hoped to switch places. However, only shortly after the plans were made public, Kallas was faced with media reports about alleged wrongdoings during his time as director of the Estonian Central Bank. The allegations that he had signed guarantees that did not appears were known for several years and not judged as particularly grave by experts given economic situation at the time. However, Kallas’ reaction to the reports – aggressive denial followed by partial admission – was not well-received and only increased pressure, so that he eventually withdrew his candidacy.

At the same time, the Reform Party held talks with both its current coalition partner, the conservative ‘Pro Patria & Res Publica Union’ (IRL), and the Social Democratic Party, with which they had formed a coalition 2007-2009. However, they soon opted to form a new coalition with the latter.

After Kallas’ resignation, the most likely candidate was Foreign Minister Urmas Paet. It has also been alleged that Ansip’s original plan to let Paet become Prime Minister, while Kallas would become a member of the European Parliament and eventually become Estonian president in 2016. After Paet delined, Justice Minister Hanno Pevkur still seemed a more obvious choice but party leadership chose to put forward 34 year-old Taavi Rõivas, MP since 2007 and Minister of Social Affairs since December 2012. Even though Rõivas has been described as a ‘dark horse‘, he has already gained some experience as chairman of the Finance and European Affairs committees in parliament. Despite his young age, he is also not the youngest Prime Minister yet – Mart Laar was only 32 when he became the country’s first post-communist Prime Minister in 1992.

Shortly after parliament approved of Rõivas and his government (he received 55 votes and thus 3 more than the coalition majority), it was announced that he would also take over the leadership of the Reform Party from Ansip. The question is how much actual authority Rõivas will have over the party as well as the government. There are not only several stronger and more experienced candidates (and thus potential intra-party rivals), but the Reform Party has lately seen its position in approval rating drop behind the Social Democrats and the IRL which could weaken his position.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves appears to have played no role in the process of government formation. Being indirectly elected, Ilves has made clear on several occasions that he felt he should not be involved in domestic politics too much. Furthermore, as a former chairman of the Social Democrats and due to the close affiliated he developed with the Reform Party throughout his term in office, he probably does not have any objections against the policies that the new government will implement. As the government includes many experienced politicians, too, there are also no formal reasons of why he would have needed to interfere in the process of government formation.

The role of Estonian presidents in government formation is in any case very limited and apart from presidents’ unwillingness to charge Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar with forming a government on several occasions (despite a large seat share, he would not have been able to form a coalition) there has not been any notable presidential activism in the matter. Therefore, it only seems natural that Ilves left it to parties to find a successor for Ansip and voiced no public objections against appointing Rõivas.

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Cabinet composition Rõivas I

Rõivas portfolio allocation & seat shares

Prime Minister: Taavi Rõivas (Reform Party; 34, male)
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Urmas Paet (Reform Party: 39, male)
Minister of the Interior: Hanno Pevkur (Reform Party; 36, male)
Minister of Defense: Sven Mikser, (Social Democrats; 40, male)
Minister of Education and Research: Jevgeni Ossinovski (Social Democrats; 28, male)
Minister of Justice: Andres Anvelt (Social Democrats; 44, male)
Minister of Environment: Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (Reform Party; 38, male)
Minister of Culture: Urve Tiidus (Reform Party; 59, female)
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure: Urve Palo (Social Democrats; 41, female)
Minister of Foreign Trade and Entrepreneurship: Anne Sulling (Reform Party; 37, female)
Minister of Agriculture: Ivari Padar (Social Democrats; 49, male)
Minister of Finance: Jürgen Ligi (Reform Party; 54, male)
Minister of Health and Labour: Urmas Kruuse (Reform Party; 48, male)
Minister of Social Welfare: Helmen Kütt (Social Democrats; 52, female)