Estonia’s new president

Posted: August 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, politics | No Comments »

It is likely that on 24 September Estonia will get a new president. Although the position is not especially powerful, the media frenzy is going ahead full steam. There have been numerous presidential debates with wannabe candidates as the convoluted process means that it is not really clear who is or becomes a candidate until very late in the process (and there is a possibility for a dark horse candidate to come days before the elections). The president is elected either by a supermajority of the Parliament or, failing that, a special electoral body consisting of parliament members and local council members, after which the elections revert to the parliament.

As expected, none of the candidates were able to surpass the high threshold in the Parliament earlier this week, so all eyes turn now to the electoral body, which convenes on 24 September and where a simple majority of eligible voters is required. The electoral body consists of all 101 members of parliament plus 234 representatives from the local governments, which means that the winning candidates needs 168 votes, provided that all turn up to vote. There is a first round where anyone who has support of 21 members can be voted for and a second round between the two more successful candidates (provided that none of the candidates got the majority already in the first round).

Current president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, an aspiring hipster/tech evangelist/Columbia-educated journalist ends his 10 year term of office with more successes than failures. Ilves was popular among the political elites for not rocking the boat too much and providing stability during difficult times (both during the financial crisis and political financing scandal surrounding the government party). He also enjoyed the support of the creative and startup circles (and likewise supported them enthusiastically) and was overall an excellent promoter of Estonia in the West, and especially the United States (but there were no significant efforts to engage with Russia or develop opportunities in Asia or other up-and-coming areas of the world).

Within the country, he unfortunately did not have the perceived intellectual gravitas of Lennart Meri or the folksiness of Arnold Rüütel, which meant he struggled to connect with the population of the country where he had not grown up in or, indeed, lived in for much of his life. This meant that his positive interventions during hotly discussed moral debates surrounding same-sex civil unions and the refugee crisis did not resonate or get much traction. It is curious how absent the discussion of Ilves’ presidency has been in the presidential debates. Perhaps Ilves was ahead of his time, a postmaterial president in a country where the majority of people hold survival values.

The field of candidates to succeed Ilves as president is large and none of them are seen as his direct successors. Political parties seem to view presidential elections more as a possibility to shore up and win supporters, rather than genuinely care about who gets to be president. There is intense intrigue and politicking to the delight of journalists who have been able to use the presidential election to get attention during otherwise boring summer months.

Among the current or former more serious candidates currently are (in alphabetic order):

  1. Mart Helme: a former ambassador to Russia who has found new prominence as the head of a small anti-immigration conservative-populist party EKRE. He has been measured during the campaign, because his support is rather small. The elections have helped him to gain supporters to his party and ideology.
    Chances: It is unlikely that he becomes one of the main contenders, although EKRE enjoys more support in the rural areas, which have disproportionate representation in the electoral body, than in cities. He might need further support from other parties to even run in the electoral body.
  2. Allar Jõks: former populist Chancellor of Justice (ombudsman + constitutional rights body) is a lawyer that has engaged in some controversial court cases (including Estonia’s first SLAPP case). He has been historically close to the ailing conservative IRL party, which has presented him as a candidate in the parliament together with the new Free Party, which is mostly made up of former IRL members. Billed as an anti-establishment figure, his views to some issues such as same-sex civil union bill contrast with those parties that support his candidature.
    Chances: At least some establishment parties have seen him as enough of a threat to prevent him from becoming one of the two candidates that get to the electoral body automatically. This means that his future depends on whether he can get enough supporters to be successful beyond the two parties that proposed him, and to hold on to those two.
  3. Marina Kaljurand: a former diplomat (including ambassador to Russia during the Bronze soldier crisis) who became Minister for Foreign Affairs a little over a year ago. Although not a member of the Reform party, she fills the position that belongs to the Reform Party under current coalition government. Some see her as not a political candidate that could unite all Estonians (including the sizeable Estonian Russian minority). She lacks experience in politics and can be tough to swallow for Estonian nationalists because of her Latvian-Russian descent. She is strongly pro-European and pro-human rights, but is seen as being able to also deal with the Eastern neighbour. She would be the first female president of Estonia and is supported mainly by the new generation of politicians.
    Chances: The Reform party did not present or support her during the parliament rounds and decided to not support her as it did not want to split its vote between two candidates. It is not clear if she will be running in the electoral body, as she is in a kind of Bernie Sanders-like situation. Her success depends on the outcome of the internal struggle within the Reform party, which so far has not been favourable to her.
  4. Siim Kallas: a prominent member of the 90s political elite, the founder and honorary chairman of the Reform Party, former Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister of Finance. After spending a decade as the Estonian member of the European Commission, he has very good credentials in foreign affairs and huge experience in politics. The time spent in Brussels has influenced the values he holds. In Estonian politics, he has been tainted with a financing scandal, which also follows him now, decades later, as well as being absent for a long time. Although offered to become a Prime Minister two and a half years ago, he suddenly dropped out. Kallas is the candidate of the business elite and the older politicians, but connecting to a wider, younger audience might prove difficult.
    Chances: He has been quite transparently pushing for the presidency for a long time and is currently the favourite of the political elite. As he was one of the two more successful candidates in the parliament, he is automatically running on 24 September. However, he needs more support than just the Reform party and it is unclear if all of Marina Kaljurand’s supporters will get behind him. He is kind of like the Estonian Hillary Clinton, but has less popular support.
  5. Eiki Nestor: the current speaker of the Parliament and former Minister of Social Affairs is a veteran social democrat politican and one of the most long-standing members of the Parliament in Estonia. Credited as the founder of Estonian pension system, he is known as a hard-working politician that gets things done. However, he has never been too popular among the public and refuses to communicate as a politician. He could have been the Estonian Bernie Sanders, but lacks populist charisma and is too much entangled with the establishment.
    Chances: Nobody really sees big chances for him to win or even become a candidate during the electoral body. It is more likely that the social democrats will throw their support behind another candidate. He has already provided visibility to the Social Democrats during the process.
  6. Mailis Reps: a former Minister of Education and a long-time Member of Parliament is the candidate of the centre-left/populist Centre Party, which is undergoing severe internal power struggle to depose Edgar Savisaar, another Estonian political icon. Reps can connect easily with regular voters and can be folksy and populist, if needed. Her foreign policy experience is related mostly to her long-term work at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, meaning she is well aware of human rights struggles and issues.
    Chances: She is the second candidate that was automatically included on 24 September. Nobody really expects her to become president, but she has used the elections in a remarkable way to grow her support and show her as the successor to Edgar Savisaar in the Centre Party. If she became president, it would be a loss for her party. This means it is likely she will throw her support behind someone else if there is enough political gain or is quite happy to lose out to the eventual winner in the second place.

Other, less-significant past and current candidates include Reform party MEP Urmas Paet, the descending chairman of the Centre Party Edgar Savisaar, National Auditor Alar Karis and controversial author Kaur Kender. None of them have a realistic chance of being running in the electoral body. There is also a possibility that someone completely different will rise as a compromise candidate, but it is unlikely that this happens because of the preceding media campaign.

The outcome of the process so far seems to be growing support for direct elections for the president, which would only create more tension and instability. In terms of outcome, as it stands now it seems that Siim Kallas has the highest chances to win in the electoral body, where a simple majority of voters is necessary. However, the situation remains unpredictable.



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