Jüri Ratas still biding time on potential presidential candidacy

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Jüri Ratas arriving at Wednesday's Center Party board meeting at party HQ on Narva mnt, Tallinn. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Center Party leader Jüri Ratas is remaining tight-lipped on any potential bid for the Estonian presidency, whose elections commence in a little over three months' time. Media speculation has been rife both about his candidacy, particularly now his party is in office with Reform, and about Kersti Kaljulaid running for a second consecutive term.

Ratas told ERR Wednesday that, following a party meeting on the issue: "The opinion was that the president of the republic must unite the people, they must draw attention to concerns, they must seek solutions.

Presidents are elected not directly by the people, but via a series of ballots at the Riigikogu which, should these prove inconclusive, are followed by voting at the regional electoral colleges. Should this draw a blank also, a council of Riigikogu elders has the final vote – which is how Kersti Kaljulaid was elected in 2016.

One fifth Riigikogu support needed to put up candidate, two thirds Riigikogu votes needed to elect president

Political parties can put up their own candidates – which requires 21 votes - or throw their weight behind another party's candidate; in any case this needs to happen at some point to pass a Riigikogu vote, where 67 votes at the 101-seat chamber are required to elect a president.

This year's election comes at the same time as campaigning for the October 17 local elections, further complicating the picture.

Since presidents cannot belong to a political party, Center would need to choose a new leader if Ratas, whose prime ministerial term almost coincided with Kersti Kaljulaid's as president, were to become head of state. Ratas is currently Riigikogu speaker, a key role which also directs Riigikogu business.

Center's Wednesday meeting covered both of autumn's two elections, Ratas said, adding that the party is indeed seeking a candidate both from inside its ranks and outside, but no unified figure has been found yet.

Ratas: No need to rush in picking candidate

Ratas also reiterated an earlier desire to see the president elected by the Riigikogu, rather than have the process dragged out as in 2016.

As to when a Center presidential candidate may be announced, Ratas would not even give away much on that topic, adding that mid-June, when the Riigikogu breaks up for summer, need not be the deadline.

"We'll do it as soon as we can, but there is still time," he told ERR.

The fourth week in June brings the mid-summer (Jaanipäev) break, during which the country practically closes down, while the rest of June, through to late August, are similarly quiet in normal years.

However, while the Riigikogu is not due back after the summer recess until September 13, MPs must attend at the end of August for the beginning of the presidential electoral process, while July and August will see campaigning for the October local elections – Estonian electoral rules prevent outdoor advertising, for instance, from around six weeks before polling day, which would be the beginning of September this time out.

Kristen Michal: First candidate to declare makes themselves a target

Kristen Michal, Reform MP and the party's group leader at Tallinn city council chambers, where it is in opposition, meanwhile said that he understood Ratas' and his party's actions so far, since whoever lays their cards on the table first from among viable candidates will be hit with a hail of criticism.

While Reform has not decided either on a presidential candidate, he went on, Michael said that a cross-party candidate who might suit the Riigikogu as a whole, or at least get enough votes, is feasible.

At the same time, Michal said that the candidate might come from outside politics altogether.

Henn Põlluaas only political candidate so far

So far, while justice chancellor Ülle Madise's name has been touted, only academic Tarmo Soomere has declared they were running as president, outside the political sphere – and only former Riigikogu speaker Henn Põlluaas (EKRE) has declared from within the Toompea bubble.

Since Reform entered into office with Center in January, this has also changed the dynamic between the two parties, and division on who should be next president could jeopardize that relationship.

Isamaa chair Helir Valdor-Seeder told ERR that backing Ratas, with whom the party was in office until January, would be complicated.

"Considering what has happened in the last months of the Center Party, which has become clear, to support Jüri Ratas' candidacy for the presidency against this background. A person is expected to be a moral beacon, so this is definitely very tricky," Seeder said.

The Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition collapsed in January after media reports appeared that the party was implicated in corruption allegations surrounding a central Tallinn real estate development. While Center retained office, this time with Reform, EKRE and Isamaa found themselves in opposition.

Earlier this month a report in investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress said that Jüri Ratas' 2019 trip to Saaremaa had cost the state purse over twelve thousand euros.

Isamaa's former defense minister Jüri Luik's name had also been linked to a presidential bid. However, he has been pegged as Estonia's next likely permanent representative to NATO, replacing Kyllike Sillaste-Elling, whose term ends in late summer, in the Brussels post.

Reform's Kristen Michal said that in any case Ratas was holding the cards, with EKRE the only party to have thrown its hat in the ring.

"Everyone has been waiting for what choice Jüri Ratas will make. Now it seems that the playing field is much more open," Michal said.

Ratas himself said that consultation with local government was also prudent ahead of making any decisions.

Postimees: Kaljulaid not favored either by Reform or Center

Daily Postimees reported on its website (link in Estonian) Wednesday evening that an anonymous source from the Reform Party told them that Ratas would logically be a candidate even if he does not declare this month, or even next month, while should he become president, Center would be led by an interim leader – European Commissioner Kadri Simson was named as a possible choice – while Reform itself would prefer public administration minister Jaak Aab at the helm of its coalition partner.

The paper also said that Kersti Kaljulaid is not the favored candidate of either of the two parties, nor would it be for EKRE – who has noted have Henn Põlluaas installed as their candidate – though non-parliamentary party Eesti 200 back Kaljulaid for a second term.

Opposition party the Social Democrats (SDE) say too that Kaljulaid should continue, Postimees reported, while Ratas was not an option for them.

"It would make utter sense for Jüri Ratas to give up running for president; he may well have particular shortcomings, given what we expect from a presidential candidate," SDE leader Indrek Saar told the daily.

Former EKRE leader Mart Helme meanwhile said that Reform were spinning Ratas as a potential candidate that it, EKRE, could support, adding that the party would be biding its time, to the extent of going to the electoral colleges if necessary, and putting forward Henn Põlluaas if he could get the 21 mandates needed.

EKRE has 19 seats so would need at least two MPs from other parties to back Põlluaas' candidacy.

The full Postimees article (in Estonian) is here.

Kersti Kaljulaid put herself forward as a candidate as the next Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) secretary general last year, but withdrew before the final choice was made. She has recently been on several official foreign visits, including one to Austria at the time of writing.

Jüri Ratas has also been traveling, but has confined himself to Estonia's shores, recently pledging to visit all 15 of the country's counties.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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