Opinion digest: Evelyn Sepp on the election cycle and the importance of the president
Just days before the Estonia’s 2016 presidential elections, which kicked off with the first round of balloting in the Riigikogu on Monday, former politician and MP Evelyn Sepp reflected on how positively this year’s presidential campaign has been handled and why exactly Estonia needs a president in the first place, expounding upon the respective roles of the Riigikogu, the government and the president for context as well.
"There has not been such an open and meaningful, but — more importantly — dignified campaign in Estonian politics in at least the past 25 years," wrote the former MP in an opinion piece published by Estonian daily Postimees (link in Estonian), admitting that while the current election cycle has not been entirely without its blunders, candidates have publicly owned up to them as well. Sepp likewise expressed appreciation for the media and the candidates' own efforts in bringing open dialogue about the country's future to the public, highlighting in particular Siim Kallas' move in announcing months early his intention to run for president, calling upon others to step up and join the debate about Estonia as well.
Sepp went on to point out that things have changed since the previous elections, ranging from the world around Estonia to the tiny country’s own emerging role as a doer rather than simply an onlooker; from the state of internal affairs, which currently include a number of nationwide reforms and a power vacuum of sorts caused by a generational change in politics, to the country’s values remaining caught somewhere between the West and the East. She found that personal responsibility was still not de rigeur in Estonia, and that "All of this combined is characteristic of a fairly immature society together with all its hopes and expectations, but we will become better one by one still, not in a single stroke, as a nation."
Noting her dismay in the majority of the population’s lack of insight regarding the various roles played by the country’s different constitutional institutions, and pointing out how the more common tendency to think in black and white, "us vs. them" terms adversely impacts sensible thought and makes people more manipulative and derogatory, Sepp set about explaining the roles of the Riigikogu, the government and the president in Estonia as well.
Estonia's three leading organs: the Riigikogu, the government and the president
The former politician recalled the fact that the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament, represented the people, and its MPs were elected directly by the people to represent them, and that it was the Riigikogu’s job to make sure that the country’s people felt confident that they were heard, their questions and concerns taken into account and their best interests represented in the course of decision-making on the legislative level. The Riigikogu, she added, was also to provide parliamentary oversight of the Estonian government.
The government in turn, she went on to explain, was in place to get things done, as guided by the Riigikogu, to be a good leader before various officials and state ministries, to maintain transparency and to protect the values vital to the country they direct. Sepp found that the government’s level of respect for the Riigikogu was a direct indication of its level of respect for the Estonian people. "And the other way around — the Riigikogu, providing the government with the mandate to act, takes full responsibility before voters (its employers) in having appointed [to the government] its best, brightest and most honest sons and daughters," she explained.
The president, Sepp continued, was the third and final part of the trinity leading the country, whose main priority, in absence of true decision-making powers, was to keep the country on course in general, which assumed the need for any potential president to be both a visionary and an influential person able to establish themselves before as well as influence the Riigikogu and the government alike. The president must also be able to both keep a finger on the pulse of Estonia’s internal politics as well as act as the country’s number one promoter to the outside world.
Acting alone, Sepp pointed out, the president is easy to both idealize and demonize, but is also in a unique position in not having to make compromises within the duties of their office. She added, however, that the president’s role opposite the government and the Riigikogu was comparable to a tennis player in a pairs match — a weak partner meant weak play on both sides, while a strong performance by one would force the other to get their act together.
The former politician concluded that what Estonia did not need was a 102nd MP or a second prime minister, but precisely "...a president who is experienced, outspoken, credible and influential — to, with the help of these characteristics, engage [the Riigikogu and the government] in such a way that is appropriate in difficult times."
Evelyn Sepp is a former MP and current CEO of the Estonian Service Industry Association (ESIA).