Tag Archives: Taavi Rõivas

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 – 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/

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)