This mess we're in: Picking up the pieces after Saturday's elections (5)
From Saturday’s election fiasco to Tuesday’s sudden emergence of a likely cross-party candidate: ERR News editor Dario Cavegn makes an attempt at explaining Estonia’s seemingly chaotic quest to find its next president.
Just days before the election in the college on Saturday, each of Estonia’s three big media houses, Eesti Meedia, Ekspress Meedia, and ERR conducted their survey of the electors. The sum of the three surveys pointed to a potential respectable result for Jõks, and a neck and neck race between Marina Kaljurand and Siim Kallas.
An interesting detail was that Kaljurand was far ahead of Kallas in terms of being electors’ second choice. The trend towards the election of Marina Kaljurand continued elsewhere as well, namely with the Social Democrats eventually deciding against a party line, as there was support for Kaljurand as well as Kallas in their ranks.
Even two electors of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) favored Kaljurand, over their own candidate, Mart Helme. Helme’s eventual result was a few votes behind the number of EKRE’s electors in the college.
These developments didn’t leave Siim Kallas unaffected, who made the rounds in the media the day and evening before the election very much making the impression that he was getting ready for defeat on Saturday. All in all, the atmosphere was such that everybody seemed to be gearing up to elect Estonia’s first woman president in the second round.
Saturday, round one: Bonfire of the vanities
But then the first round happened. Instead of coming in first or second, Kaljurand came in fourth with 75 votes behind Mailis Reps’ 79. Suddenly Siim Kallas was the top contender for round two, which, telling from their facial expressions upon hearing the result of the first round, came as quite a surprise to everybody.
An interesting thought to entertain is that the first round could have been an accident. Two solid features of any country’s political landscape are vanity and spite. Parties as well as individual politicians are usually ready to do the exact opposite of what common sense would dictate, for the sake of their own image, or to put one over on somebody.
On Saturday, though a majority of electors might have been ready to elect Marina Kaljurand, naturally what they needed to get done first was make sure that their woman or man was right up there, next to the eventual winner.
And so they overdid it — not in terms of voting the party line, but in terms of individual electors voting their conscience. Under such circumstances, people who were confident they would be getting the chance to vote for Kaljurand in the second round voted for their own group's candidate in the first.
This is all moot now, of course. What isn’t though is what happened in the second round, where a much deeper and more important issue of Estonian politics was at work.
Saturday, round two: Kallas stabbed in the back
Neither Allar Jõks nor Siim Kallas got the required number of votes to be elected. What’s interesting here is to consider who would have voted for which candidate. In the case of Jõks, the matter is relatively simple — the Free Party and IRL would have supported him, and he was also backed by the independents.
Kallas’ case is different. If the theory has any merit (and there is a good chance that it does) that the Center Party wants its political rehabilitation, and to enter government next year, having a favor to trade would be an advantage. It isn’t too abstract to think that the party’s progressive wing around Simson would have voted for the Reform Party’s candidate as part of a move towards a coming Reform/Center coalition government.
At the same time, Edgar Savisaar has reason to worry about his legacy and needs to break through the perception of being only concerned with himself, and not the welfare of the country. As transparent a guess this may be, he eventually instructed his wing to vote for Kallas.
EKRE turned in ten empty ballot sheets. At a total of 57 empty and three invalid sheets, this leaves 50 empty sheets that must have come from somewhere.
As mentioned above, the Social Democrats were divided before the election. Part of their group in the college favored Kallas, part favored Kaljurand. It can therefore be assumed that at least those SDE members going for Kallas anyway would have voted for him.
If the whole rest of SDE’s electors had then decided to hand in empty sheets, this still doesn’t explain where the rest came from, as SDE only had 41 electors in the college.
The only place left where they could have come from is Reform itself. Jõks, at this point, had reached the maximum of his support. There was nobody else in the college to vote for him anymore. But Kallas could have reached the necessary number of votes if it hadn’t been for the empty ballot sheets —
Part of which must have come from his own party. In the light of this, Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas’ comment of Saturday that the Reform Party “wasn’t the problem” seems rather empty.
Overcoming the old guard
What we’ve been witnessing over the past few years is an ever stronger movement against the major parties’ old guard of the 1990s. The Center Party is currently in the process of ousting Edgar Savisaar as chairman to be able to get back into government politics and cooperate with the other parties.
Though in their case the generation change seems to be happening at a slower pace, the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) de facto disintegrated in 2014, with the result that the Free Party was founded. Other long-time heavyweights of the party, such as former President of the Riigikogu Ene Ergma, have left the party more recently.
With the result of the second round of Saturday’s election, the change in generation seems to finally have arrived in the Reform Party as well. The question whether to make Kallas or Kaljurand their presidential candidate brought matters to a close after the attempt to elect the next head of state in the Riigikogu, when in a very quick move Reform chairman and Prime Minister Rõivas pushed Kallas on the party as their final presidential candidate.
Those members of Reform that contributed to the failure of Siim Kallas in the second round on Saturday expressed tendencies within the party towards an internal reform as well, and towards overcoming 1990s politics and their remnants.
In the light of Monday and Tuesday’s attempts to find a cross-party candidate, and after Jüri Luik and Kersti Kaljulaid ended up on the shortlist of the Riigikogu’s Council of Elders and Kaljulaid is now being traded as Estonia’s next president, there is the question of what was wrong with the previous candidates that they couldn’t still be considered for election.
And that is not just a question expats and people abroad are asking themselves, looking at Wednesday’s editorials in the country’s largest papers.
The mantra heard over and over again since Saturday is that a non-partisan candidate is needed. One might argue that this is exactly the kind of independence Marina Kaljurand brought in, but not in the eyes of the Estonian parties: Kaljurand was chosen for the position of Foreign Minister by Reform and confirmed as the government’s choice by the Reform Party’s leadership. Despite her having been an expert minister, and despite the fact that the Reform Party eventually dropped her as its presidential candidate, this apparently tainted her.
Allar Jõks had every reason to reject the idea of running in the Riigikogu next Monday: His supporters are solidly conservative, and a hopeless minority in the country’s parliament. Kallas, after no longer being able to rely on so much as his own party’s united support, couldn’t be sure either. Mart Helme never stood a chance.
Mailis Reps, as the candidate of a party looking to make a trade in order to get out of political isolation, is on the wrong side of a potential deal, no matter how well she did in the campaign.
For the next president, go with what works
So who is left? Who has the necessary credibility and appeal to become a cross-party candidate that at the same time isn’t seen as a lame compromise? Won’t the next candidate immediately have the problem of being seen as just that?
Already yesterday, Kersti Kaljulaid was jokingly referred to as the “lone survivor” on social media. That again isn’t accurate: She showed up when the fight was already over. Which means she hasn’t been exposed to media pressure compared to that facing the previous five (or six) candidates. She hasn’t been vetted for office by the public, although considering the actual reality of the Estonian state and how it is built up, this should hardly matter.
On top of that, treating her as an apolitical candidate is ever so slightly hypocritical, as she is a former member of Pro Patria Union (Isamaaliit), one of IRL’s precursors. And so is that other non-partisan candidate, Jüri Luik.
But just how much politics should matter, and how much more weight should be given to the prospective head of state’s character and convictions, that is the real question.
In a speech held at this year’s Opinion Festival in Paide, Kaljulaid was decidedly conservative, arguing for an ethical state aiming to preserve as well as renew Estonian culture. Considering the very apparent leaning of a lot of Estonians towards social conservatism, a president dedicating herself both to the defense of all things Estonian as well as the rejuvenation of the country could turn out to be both a good and a necessary choice.