Tag Archives: Kersti Kaljulaid

Estonia – After one year in office president Kersti Kaljulaid still needs to make her mark

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.

Official portrait of president Kersti Kaljulaid | image via president.ee

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.

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.