Mihkel Mutt: The jack-o'-lantern of direct elections

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Mihkel Mutt. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Debating the presidential institution in general and direct presidential elections more narrowly is a national pastime in Estonia and similarly reveals general collective quirks and narrow hidden agendas, Mihkel Mutt writes.

Konstantin Päts, the first president of the Republic of Estonia, was basically right when he said that the people are sick. He picked up on the phenomenon (like many others before and after him, not least Anton Hansen Tammsaare), while his diagnosis wasn't quite accurate – as concerns the case history so to speak.

It is not so much a disease as retardation. Estonians found themselves in new situations very suddenly and were not given enough time to adjust. Their behavioral patterns and strategies that had supported surviving the "long night of slavery" were no longer practicable. In short: Estonians did not know how to be a free people in a free country overnight (no one would have).

Perhaps Päts could have embellished the message a little (whereas it would not be better to tell someone they are retarded to their face). The remedy he chose is also questionable. But that is not the point here. What matters is that retardation was probably on the same level then as it is now. Back then, slavery was the nearer trauma, while mental problems caused by the occupation have now been added to the mix.

This long introduction serves the purpose of dispelling wishful thinking as concerns emulating the power structures of other countries. A Nordic example where direct presidential elections and parliamentary democracy function in perfect harmony might not work here. There is much greater balance between personal and social interests there, courtesy of more peaceful and natural development.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of traditions and customs in this regard. For example, the United Kingdom has both the "mother of all parliaments" and the only prominent royal family in the world. It is made possible by what the public consciousness deems proper in terms of public organization of life. The latter is stronger than any decree.

In Estonia, a directly elected president (representing "us") would likely still be set in contrast to the government and Riigikogu (representing "them"). It would be a relapse of the disease mentioned by Päts.

Regarding Riigikogu elections, people have learned to admit defeat and move on so to speak. We've learned to accept that our vote doesn't necessarily go to the person we voted for and can be transferred. This acceptance could stem from the fact that the transfer is mandated by the system and is nothing personal. That is why people do not stone those who land high positions despite only receiving a modest number of votes. Finally, there are 101 MPs.

But there is only one president and no possibility of transferring anything. In a situation where there is value-based tension in society (namely presently) and the president has a clear set of preferences therein (as is the case), direct elections would only highlight the latter.

How would the losing camp feel after what would likely be a close shave? What and how would the president be able to unite in such a situation is difficult to imagine. What kind of superhuman authority or personal traits would one need or what type of general rhetoric would they have to spout so that everyone would find something to their liking and to sooth them.

I doubt anyone would make the effort to hide their preference, which would once again pit neighbor against neighbor tooth and nail. It would be exaggeration to claim that the losers would elect their own president that would unleash a lukewarm civil war, while we should not hope for any kind of mending of social cracks either.

In this light, and paradoxically enough, it is safer if the president is decided in backrooms or even in draconian "Brussels." At least neighbors can then avoid falling out. Both can throw in the towel and admit that, once again, things were decided by someone else somewhere else, and that the best thing to do now would be to grab a cold one!

This is also the hour of reckoning for me. I have written myself that we need a president to unite the people more broadly and through personal authority. This desire has stayed with Estonians probably since the time of national awakening when culture and national independence were inseparable. We saw the final wave of that sentiment during the transitional period. Today, the desire is anachronistic and outdated.

Even though there might be suitable persons out there, society itself has become so pluralist and fragmented that they would not achieve universal appeal. This leaves us little choice but to recognize the merits of work allocation. A politician is a politician and a state official a public servant (with the hierarchy crowned by the president), while spiritual inspiration is best left up to the Defense League and artists, church and education circles etc.

Every segment of society is yearning for the touch of the "holy word" of their own opinion leader. The only thing with the potential of uniting the people and achieving a more coherent society is joint action in all its forms and the civic sentiment it inspires.

I would be careful when trying to marry the institutions of president and prime minister. We do not have enough capable politicians and risks should be managed. Thinking back to Estonian prime ministers and trying to imagine them in the role of the president, not all would make the cut.

A presidency a la Germany or Israel is likely awaiting Estonia.

The president needs to be a decent person rubbing as few people as possible the wrong way, making it possible to shake their hand without a moral malfunction. They should not have serious skeletons in their closet, including from the Soviet era. Therefore, a royal chief notary and an experience socialite in one!

Regarding the entire topic, we need to distinguish between discussion and its potential consequence. Direct elections are like happiness and love. Dreaming and talking about them is superior to what one is left with once everything is said and done.

Believing that giving the people the right to elect the president directly would improve matters to a notable degree is either naive or populist. Especially the latter. Supporting the notion is a sure win with potential voters for every politician.

At the same time, suppressing the debate is also not desirable. In the end, the motivation behind it is healthy – to reduce alienation. It stimulates people's social nerve without which every organ would wither.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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