Toomas Sildam: Jüri Ratas dictating pace on search for next president

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Jüri Ratas going for a two-point lay-up at the Vinni sports hall in Lääne-Viru County last week. He seems to be instead dribbling out the shot clock regarding any potential presidency candidacy, though he is also likely to meet more opposition than here. Source: Erik Peinar/Government Office

Until Jüri Ratas (Center) declares his hand on this fall's presidential elections, predicting who out of any other potential candidates, including the current incumbent, Kersti Kaljulaid, makes little sense, senior ERR journalist Toomas Sildam writes.

Political parties generally put up their own candidates, but at some point some of them need to back another party's candidate in order to make progress. This is particularly the case with the two largest parties, Reform and Center, who are in coalition together, Sildam continues.

Kersti Kaljulaid is eligible for a second term, and ditched an earlier plan to run for secretary general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which she had declared for late last summer.

The Reform Party remains key, but at the same time it will not be able to put up a presidential candidate of its own, Sildam writes – given they have the prime minister seat now, in Kaja Kallas.

In the 2016 presidential election process, Reform put up Siim Kallas (the father of Kaja - ed.) and got its fingers burned, Sildam said, for trying to hold both head of state and head of government roles, soon after ending up with either (Jüri Ratas became prime minister after a vote of no-confidence in Reform's Taavi Rõivas, in November 2016, a little over a month after Kersti Kaljulaid became president - ed.).

Reform then stayed in opposition for four years, until this January, Sildam notes.

Center, however, also has to bide its time – for the decision by its own leader, current Riigikogu speaker and former prime minister, Jüri Ratas.

If Ratas does decide to run, there could still be problems. While Ratas took the bullet for the latest Center Party corruption scandal, by standing down in January, Sildam writes, this is hardly a stellar prelude to the president's office.

At the same time, he could be accused of trying to "escape" Center and its problems, by being walled-up in Kadriorg, seat of the president, for a five-year term.

He would still be subject to journalistic inquiry on his period as party chair since 2016, and in relation to the long-running court cases which have dogged the party.

Center and Reform are in coalition together, but an agreement on presidential candidate was not made in January's talks, Sildam notes.

This was largely because Center could not name who their candidate would be, whole Reform did not want to buy a pig in a poke by agreeing to a Center candidate without knowing who it was.

Questions can also be raised on Ratas' sincerity as a coalition partner, Sildam notes, given the sideswipes he has taken against Kaja Kallas administration since January (while Kallas might have done the same prior to that, her party, as noted, was in opposition – ed.).

This might point to the beginnings of distrust between the two coalition partners.

While backing Ratas might have practical use for Reform, the party would have laid its cards on the table in so doing, since it would be locked into government with Center then (or if Reform reneged on this it would spell the end of the coalition partnership).

There is also the question of what Kersti Kaljulaid, ending her first term, will do. Presidents are eligible to serve two consecutive terms in Estonia (and more, if non-consecutive).

Her position would likely be strengthened if Ratas were to bow out; otherwise there are many names in the ring now to be discussed between now and the end of August: Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise, former defense minister Jüri Luik (Isamaa), national museum chief Alar Karis, academic Tarmo Soomere, candidate at the last presidential election and MEP Marina Kaljurand (SDE), former TalTech rector Jaak Aaviksoo, and more.

But, Ratas may be relishing the timing of announcing his choice, Sildam notes. Piling on the pressure until the load breaks is one of his, Ratas', trademark moves.

First, the Center Party, which must elect a new chairman before the local elections in October. A party with a complicated rating, which feels the breath of EKRE at the back of the neck, has no chance of making a mistake. The most logical would be the party's deputy chairman and former Minister of Education Mailis Reps, an important negotiator of the new government coalition, but he is under police investigation due to the excessive use of official benefits.

Finally, Center has to pick a new chair if Ratas goes ahead as presidential candidate – with Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart, health minister Tanel Kiik and public administration minister Jaak Aab the frontrunners, Sildam said, with the first two popular with respective factions within Center and the latter known as a capable organizer.

It is possible that Reform and Center will not come to an agreement, Sildam notes, just as it is possible that Ratas will remain in his current role as Riigikogu speaker, and improve the profile of that role in a way his predecessors have not.

But, he has, as evidenced by his recent pledge to visit all 15 of Estonia's counties, said he would be the lightning rod that will bind all the public's worries into one, Sildam notes.

The presidential election starts at the end of August with rounds of run-off ballots at the Riigikogu. Should these prove inconclusive, the voting moves to the regional electoral colleges and, if this draws a blank too, it is up to the Riigkogu's council of elders to vote in a candidate. Kersti Kaljulaid became president via this latter route in October 2016.

Estonian presidents are not elected directly by the people. The next direct elections, the municipal elections on October 17, run practically concurrently with the presidential election this year.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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