Names of various potential candidates as Estonia's sixth president have been trickling in, amid concerns that the process may be even more protracted than before, ETV current affairs show "Pealtnägija" reported Wednesday evening.
Names touted so far include former Bank of Estonia governor Ardo Hansson, and Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise, as well as two Isamaa ministers, Jüri Luik and Urmas Reinsalu.
Current president, Kersti Kaljulaid, has already announced a bid to run as next Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), meaning she is ruled out for a second term in 2021. Kaljulaid, once an economics adviser to Mart Laar when he was prime minister, has sided in the recent past with Ardo Hansson's successor as central bank governor, Madis Müller, in opposition to reforms to the Estonian pension scheme.
Ülle Madise's role includes representing the state at the Supreme Court, in Tartu, which she did most recently in October, when the president's bid to block the pension reform bill was blocked.
Jüri Ratas also mentioned
Another name mentioned has been the current prime minister, Jüri Ratas (Center). This would, "Pealtnägija" reported, require some horse-trading with Reform, with the latter being included in the governmental coalition being the price of Ratas, who would need to leave Center (presidents are non-political appointees – ed.) to do so.
This development would echo past deals, including one which saw Tallinn mayor being a Center Party figure – as they still are – in return for Reform in office at national level, but this broke down four years ago when Taavi Rõivas (Reform) was ousted as prime minister in a vote of no-confidence which ended up with Reform in opposition and Center in office – at that time with Isamaa and the Social Democrats – at the Stenbock House as well.
"Pealtnägija" stressed that the above names were pure speculation, but what is clear, the report found, is that the three coalition parties are trying to reach common ground – with the smallest of the three parties, Isamaa, actually first in line for a top job, given that Center has the prime minister and the Conservative people's Party of Estonia (EKRE) has another powerful post to its name, that of Riigikogu speaker (Henn Põlluaas).
Isamaa duo of Luik and Reinsalu
ERR's senior political journalist Toomas Sildam came up with two names from that party: Defense minister Jüri Luik and foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu, a pair he said almost went hand-in-hand.
"When we think of Jüri Luik, we then think of Urmas Reinsalu. In both cases, it could probably be stated that there are likely different, but very interesting, candidates and, as president, would probably not embarrass Estonia," Sildam said.
The issue of Estonia embarrassing itself internationally would be set in the light of recent comments about the U.S. presidential elections made by erstwhile interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE) which, while they may not have troubled the international media from the outset, found their way into several major publications after the issue got parlayed up into a major issue on the domestic front.
Picking a candidate, wherever they are from, would still need to be followed by a Riigikogu vote (Estonia's presidents are not elected directly – ed.), one which requires more than the usual 51 majority at the 101-seat chamber, but instead two thirds of the house (68 votes) – precisely to avoid the role becoming too politicized.
Since the Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition has 56 MPs, several opposition MPs would need to vote in favor of "their" candidate – a tall order at present given the polarized nature of Estonian party politics, "Pealtnägija" found.
EKRE going for Henn Põlluaas
The Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) itself has come up with a candidate, Henn Põlluaas – the current speaker.
Other leading politicians mentioned in the context in general include Reform MEP Urmas Paet, and Center MP and former deputy speaker Enn Eesmaa.
Non-political figures, mostly from academia, Tiit Land – rector of Tallinn Techical University, and Tarmo Soomere, president of the Estonian Academy of Sciences (Eesti Teaduste Akadeemia), have also found themselves tipped by some.
The coalition has, Sildam said, been counting its votes not only at the national level but even at the local one, taking into account which party dominates local government, (if the Riigikogu ballot rounds draw a blank, the voting passes to regional electoral colleges – ed.).
Sildam said: "I have heard that the current coalition has actually tried to count up the votes, that there is somehow, some there in the municipalities. But the argument is that these votes are very itsy-bitsy, to the extent that the coalition may not even come up with a joint candidate."
Isamaa's Riigikogu group chair Priit Sibul, also appearing on the show, said that many nowadays are making their own calculations, a year ahead of the vote; Center MP Jaanus Karilaid said that the coalition can be expected to see strong support.
Former Riigikogu speaker: Don't count your chickens before they hatch
A former Riigikogu speaker, Eiki Nestor (SDE), cautioned against taking this too far at local level.
Nestor said: "As a rule, a big mistake checking which party or electoral bloc the chairman of the [municipal] council comes from...[assuming the council chair's party will equate to the presidential candidate] may not be the case. The distribution of votes on paper, and in fact in the chamber, may not tally and are in fact likely to differ."
The Riigikogu speaker in any case holds a key role in presidential elections. Should the electoral college round of ballots prove inconclusive, and following another unsuccessful Riigikogu round, the decision goes to the so-called Riigikogu council of elders, composed of speaker, the two deputy speakers, and representatives of all elected parties. This is in fact precisely what happened in November 2016 when Kersti Kaljulaid was chosen.
Politicians have reportedly said that they want to avoid a repeat of the long, drawn-out election of 2016 at all costs. However, on the other hand, the current state of party relations and political arithmetic suggest that a repeat, or an even more agonized process, may be on the horizon next fall, "Pealtnägija" found.
Expert: 2021 will be a high-stakes presidential election
Political observer and consultant Andreas Kaju told "Pealtnägija" that the stakes are indeed higher this time round, in the sense of political unity domestically and Estonia's status internationally.
Kaju said: "Not only highly in terms of finding the ideal president, but, as sad as it may be for the Estonian political observer, the stakes are very high in the respect of the present coalition parties needing to find an agreement with each other."
Reaching an agreement on a unified coalition candidate is even a matter of the authority of the current president, Toomas Sildam said.
Priit Sibul said that the process itself may follow the course of the ballot stages, in other words, parties will go with their own candidate in the early stages and reach a common candidate later – though this did not happen in 2016 even as well-known candidates had put out their stalls; Kersti Kaljulaid in the event was somewhat of a dark horse runner, and was brought in from a long-standing post with the European Court of Auditors, based in Luxembourg, to take up her seat at Kadriorg.
If the vote goes to the electoral college as it did four years ago, even this will take on a different character, because administrative reforms have been made during that time – cutting the electoral college's number of electors from 335 to 208 (the 101 Riigikogu MPs – apportioned to each region, and 107 local government figures).
Past history demonstrates that going to the electoral college stage and beyond is in fact the rule rather than the exception – the president has only been elected by the Riigikogu alone on two occasions since 1991 (one of these being to Toomas Hendrik Ilves' second term - ed.).
While Kersti Kaljulaid is not in the running this time, she could run for a later term or terms – unlike the U.S., multiple terms are permissible, though may not go beyond two if they are consecutive.
The presidential elections in 2021 will be closely followed by local elections, making the politicking at regional, as well as national, level, likely even more frenetic.
The original "Pealtnägija" report (in Estonian) is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte