The Reform Party is playing a delicate game in the run-up to this autumn's presidential elections, in an effort to avoid a repeat performance of fall 2016, when the party found itself excluded from office shortly after Kersti Kaljulaid becoming head of state, panelists on Vikerraadio politics show 'Rahva teenrid' found Saturday afternoon.
The machinations, which include a potential bid from Center Party leader Jüri Ratas, are putting a strain on both coalition partners – Reform and Center – the participants: Mirko Ojakivi, Urmas Jaagant and Krister Paris noted.
Jaagant said that political decisions at coalition-level are being put off until the presidential election goes ahead, which may have the effect of tensions accumulating which will be harder to disperse later.
Ojakivi concurred, saying that: "Conditions in the 'black box' are highly flammable."
Jaagant: Ratas and Kaljulaid only strong candidates at Riigikogu
Jaagant said that Ratas and the current incumbent, Kersti Kaljulaid, are the only candidates whose names have been mentioned in connection with the election – and neither has publicly declared they are running – who would have around a 95 percent chance of getting elected by the Riigikogu.
At the same time, that 5 percent risk of failing a parliament vote would harm both individuals reputations, hence them biding their time, he said.
"Ratas is playing a long game: let's see whose nerves can't take it any longer," he said, adding that mistiming a bid could cost a candidate the presidency.
Estonian presidents are not elected directly by the people, but follow a series of Riigikogu ballots which, should they prove inconclusive, move to regional electoral colleges for further voting. Should that round draw a blank too, the matter goes back to parliament, where a so-called council of elders can ultimately hold a ballot on any candidate.
Reform and Center mindful of what followed 2016 presidential elections
This was the path Kersti Kaljulaid, a dark horse candidate who was working for the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg at the time, took down to getting the job in November 2016, but both Reform and Center's leadership have expressed a desire to get the matter squared away at the Riigikogu and not spun out again, this time around.
Jüri Ratas became prime minister later in November 2016, after Taavi Rõivas (reform) was ousted along with his party, with Center replacing Reform in coalition with Isamaa and the Social democrats (SDE).
Mirko Ojakivi mad the point that that which never was, cannot be lost, however.
Ojakivi said: "The goal of politician is to please the voters, to be in the picture. Reps did herself no harm by running for office last time," he said, noting that it was Reform's presidential efforts that cost it national government.
Mailis Reps (Center) was one of several candidates that ran in 2016.
Parties ultimately have to converge on one candidate
Political parties – of which there are now five at the Riigikogu where there were six in 2016 – either put up their own candidates or put their weight behind another party's candidate.
Ultimately, some parties have to do this if a president is to be picked by the Riigikogu; 67 votes are needed at the 101-seat chamber, and Reform and Center together have 59, meaning eight more votes from other parties' MPs would be needed.
21 MP's votes are needed to put a candidate up in the first place.
The Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) has 19 seats, Isamaa have 12 and SDE have 10 – Raimond Kaljulaid, who sits with the SDE political group – makes the total 101.
Panel: Bickering with Center would not help Kaja Kallas
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas will be anxious to avoid bickering on a presidential candidate at this stage, Ojakivi noted.
While the party have recently called for a candidate with a broad base of support – a description which could not really be applied to Kersti Kaljulaid, whom critics have said has been a too polarizing force – Urmas Jaagant said that the delicate situation nonetheless plays into her hands in that the two ruling parties might just decide it being most sensible to continue with the incumbent, to avoid fall-out.
Presidential elections nearly coincide with local elections this year
This points to the crucial nature of the presidential elections despite complaints they do not involve the bulk of the electorate, he said.
"It is amazing that when it gets stated that since the people do not vote, [the presidential election] is some sort of 'by-election'; in fact it always has such a huge impact on domestic politics. This tension is perceived, more and more sand is thrown between the wheels," he went on.
This year, the local elections – which are every four years whereas the president has five-year terms – come in October, meaning either just after the president has been elected, or even while the presidential election process is still going, should it prove protracted again.
Ratas likely in no hurry
Jüri Ratas would need to resolve his status as Center Party leader – presidents are not permitted to belong to a political party, but he would likely be anxious to ensure an amenable successor – in addition to solving the conundrum of how to propose himself as a presidential candidate, at a time when he is Riigikogu speaker – a role which oversees Riigikogu business in any case.
He has stated more than once that there is no hurry at this stage while, conversely, he wants the matter solved via Riigikogu ballots. Parliament breaks up for summer from June 17 and is not due back till September 13 – a couple of weeks later than usual to give time for politicians to canvass the public ahead of the local elections.
At the same time, MPs will have to attend the Riigikogu – in person if coronavirus levels remain low – from the end of August, to take part in the presidential election process.
The deadline for declaring as a candidate is just four days before election day.
Paris: Kaljulaid really needs to put herself up as candidate soon, if she wants to retain job
Krister Paris told "Rahva teenrid" that if Kersti Kaljulaid really intends to run for a second term, she ought to declare around now; not doing so suggests she does not intend to or does not really want to.
Kaljulaid has recently been on several official international visits and hosted several more at Kadriorg; Jüri Ratas has confined his travels to Estonian shores, recently pledging to a tour of all 15 of Estonia's counties, which he is part-way through – this may be more with the local elections in mind, however.
Mirko Ojakivi said that in any case relations between the two coalition parties have already become more fraught, evident on several fronts.
One example of this is Reform's leadership having to remind rank-and-file party members not to come up with anything insulting about Jüri Ratas (as some of them may have done while the party was in opposition; Reform youth members for instance repeatedly pinged Ratas' smartphone while he was taking part in a televised debate ahead of the 2019 general election – ed.).
Reform/Center classic fault lines put on ice for time being
Neither the personhood of Ratas nor issues facing the Reform/Center coalition, which has been in existence since late January and followed Ratas' resignation earlier that month, will make it easy for the partnership to survive.
Meanwhile divisive political issues – the future of the oil shale sector in Ida-Viru County and austerity measures – are all still in the background, unresolved, he noted.
Mikro Ojakivi said that nonethless:"Ratas is in a very comfortable position until the autumn ... it was Kallas who promised to find a suitable candidate."
In this way Ratas may find a second wind towards the end of the race and find himself overtaking the pack, the panel found.
Riigikogu presidential ballots are secret
Other potential candidates are EKRE's Henn Põlluaas and non-partisan academic Tarmo Soomere (both declared), justice chancellor Ülle Madise and former defense minister Jüri Luik (neither declared – Luik has been earmarked as Estonia's next NATO permanent representative in Brussels).
Since the Riigikogu ballots are secret, Urmas Jaagant noted, Ratas is also being cautious in that he and Center cannot be certain that they will get the full backing of all Reform MPs.
At the same time, the last presidential elections being so drawn out at least led to some meaningful debates taking place and clearer pictures of most of the candidates emerging. Since in the end this all came crashing down in that none of those candidates got the job, noone wants to be the first to lay their cards on the table, Jaagant added.
Noone eager to be the first to put head above parapet
"Nobody wants to pop their head above the parapet. The whole electoral college is being looked at, and we are waiting for the 'kamikaze' who will pop his or her head up first," he said.
Krister Paris noted that all of this contributes to the popular perception of Estonia's presidents being elected via backroom deals, ending up with a candidate who is not "theirs".
Political parties may be looking to the regional electoral college stage after all, the panel found.
And after the presidential elections are done, the return to every-day Reform-Center politicking is likely to arrive with a bang.
Editor: Andrew Whyte