Karmo Tüür: Direct presidential elections like a firearm without a safety

Karmo Tüür.
Karmo Tüür. Source: ERR

The proposal to elect the president directly sounds like a proposal to remove a firearm's safety, Karmo Tüür says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Let us start with a simple question. Is a weapon a source of danger? It is and it isn't. The weapon does not kill or injure people by itself. It is done in most cases by the person carrying or using it. Of course, failures cannot be ruled out. To minimize the danger, the safety was invented. As a lesson learned from untold accidents, a safety mechanism was invented and attached to firearms.

The next and somewhat more complicated question is whether power is a weapon? Again, it can be. Power can be wielded as a tool and as a weapon. Power in itself is neither good nor bad. But a tool can also be used as a weapon, can it not? Against dissenters, against one's own people. Or to protect one's clique or business interests. To minimize such risks, it also makes sense to have a safety for power.

Power can be very dangerous if it is given to a single person. While an enlightened monarch would make for the perfect ruler, countless accidents have shown it to be dangerous. A good ruler can become a tyrant sooner or later. It is for this reason a safety mechanism has been invented here too. It's called the balance of power.

To keep things simple, we will be looking at two components of the mechanism. The president and parliament. A directly elected president has a strong mandate handed to them directly by the people. A president elected by the parliament has a weak mandate or less power to put it simply.

Societies and countries that sport a long history have usually gradually understood that power needs balancing. And that having a single ruler with a strong mandate is a bad idea. Because accidents happen. Rulers can go insane. Carrying a weapon alters one's psyche.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Having parliamentary control over the president helps mitigate these risks. Representative democracy operates as a safety mechanism of the weapon of power.

Why this train of thought? It seems that the time has once again come to repeat why directly electing the president is a bad idea. The occasion is what is happening in Belarus and resulting expostulations a la: "At least Belarus has a president elected by the people."

Because I am a political scientist and not an ideologist, an allowance is in order. A directly elected president is not automatically bad nor an indirectly elected one good.

The best example of a directly elected but at the same time the world's most modest president was Jose Mujica of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015. The most authoritarian leader in the world today Kim Jong-un was elected indirectly, while not many outside of North Korea would ever consider referring to the regime as democratic.

The democratic system is by no means ideal. Every model has its pros and cons. Representative democracy, as a type of democracy, also has its shortcomings, especially in terms of the clumsiness and multiple stages of its processes. Is it always the best possible option I cannot say, while it definitely isn't the most effective. However, it is the safest and one capable of minimizing the danger of slipping into autocracy.

Such deliberations are entirely fitting. No country is ever ready and its makeup can and must be debated. But we would do well to learn from the mistakes of others and really think about whether we should remove the safety from the weapon.

The proposal to have a directly elected president to me sounds like a proposal to remove a gun's safety. To remove the mechanism that lessens the danger of a deranged president turning against their own people.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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