Anybody’s race: Estonia’s 2016 presidential elections (2)
Candidates will only be nominated in August, just four days before the first ballot round, yet the media are already full of polls and analyses. The election procedure makes it difficult to predict the outcome, and any candidate’s popularity with the people on the whole will have little influence.
On the way to the presidency, a candidate is first considered by the political parties’ parliamentary groups, then nominated by at least 21 members of the Riigikogu, and elected if the country’s parliament can agree on a new head of state in three ballots or less.
If three rounds aren’t enough, the election is postponed, and a special electoral college convenes. This college includes representatives of the country’s local councils as well, which means that its political composition might be very different from that of the Riigikogu.
The will of the people isn’t the will of the parties
This procedure makes it very hard to predict the outcome of the elections, and somewhat difficult to write about all those who are interested in the presidency. As MPs can only nominate them four days before the actual election, they can’t officially be called candidates any earlier than that.
Also, references like “The Reform Party’s most likely candidate” are at least slightly misleading, as in theory, MPs are free to nominate whoever they please.
Because of the lengthy procedure leading up to the presidential elections, there’s an apparent discrepancy between the popularity of certain potential candidates and their chances to get according support in the Riigikogu.
Currently, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marina Kaljurand is leading the field. But despite her popularity with the voters, the Reform Party could choose Siim Kallas or Urmas Paet instead, and if the party’s MPs tow the line, other parties would have to come together to make her a candidate.
Could electing the president directly solve the issue?
President Lennart Meri (1992-2001) suggested as early as 2001 that the president should be elected directly by the people. A comparison drawn by potential presidential candidate Jaak Jõerüüt is the Finnish presidency, for which the switch was made to direct elections in 1993.
There are several concerns. Estonia is a parliamentary democracy, which means that it is ruled by a government accountable to the country's parliament. If the president were to be elected directly, there would be an imbalance in terms of their popular mandate, as they would most likely have been elected with plenty more votes than whoever leads the government as prime minister.
Jõerüüt wrote in an opinion piece in Estonian daily Postimees on Tuesday that this argument didn’t really hold up, as Finland was still a parliamentary republic. In such a system, the parliament is more powerful than the head of state - no matter how they are elected. This hadn’t led to any problems in Finland.
Moreover, while the people elected the local councils, the Riigikogu, and members of the European Parliament, the will of the voters was censored in the case of the presidency, Jõerüüt wrote, the president being the only representative of the Estonian people not elected by them.
Dissatisfaction about the current procedure is widespread. Where some say that it should be within the competency of the Riigikogu to function well enough to elect a president, others have suggested to elect the president in the special electoral college right away.
Considering the current will to conduct structural reforms, the Estonian parliament’s impressive ability to move and solve problems quickly, and how the administrative reform bill could reshape the political landscape and the electoral college, there is a good chance that by the time a president is elected in 2021, changes will at least be discussed.