Feature: Estonia's presidential election 2021

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Ballots being counted at the first round of the 2021 presidential election. Source: Erik Peinar, Chancellery of the Riigikogu

On August 30, the Estonian parliament will vote for a new president and it's fair to say that this election is different from previous years. ERR News outlines the background, process and what can be expected over the coming weeks.

On October 10, President Kersti Kaljulaid's five-year term of office will come to an end. It is now the Estonian parliament's (Riigikogu) job to propose and elect a new president to replace her. But, as with many things in 2021, events have not gone according to plan.

ERR News gives an overview below.

Editor's note: This article was updated on August 31 after the second round of the presidential election to add a summary of events. 

Presidential Election 2021: Day by day summary

August 30: First vote

Presidential candidate Alar Karis sitting alone in the Riigikogu during the first round of the 2021 presidential election. Source: Erik Peinar, Chancellery of the Riigikogu

Alar Karis was not elected president during the first vote. He won 63 votes but needed 68 to win. Sixteen ballot papers were unmarked. In total, 79 members of the Riigikogu participated in the voting out of a possible 101.

The vote took place in secret but some things have been reported afterward in the media.

Fifty-eight members of the Reform and Center votes, only Siim Kallas was absent. He is currently in hospital. The parties will continue to support Karis.

Many members of the Social Democrats did not vote for Karis. MP Riina Sikkut said the party had only met with Karis for 90 minutes before the vote and this was not long enough to determine if he would be a good or bad president. The party still prefers current President Kersti Kaljulaid or MEP Marina Kaljurand. The party will meet with Karis on Tuesday morning.

Isamaa Chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder, who is also in hospital, did not vote which reduced the number of available Isamaa votes available to 11. It was reported that more Isamaa members vote for Karis than against him.

Isamaa's group chair at parliament Priit Sibul is calling on SDE to vote for Karis: "Our wish is to elect the president at the Riigikogu, and we also call on the Social Democrats to support President Karis tomorrow."

The 19 EKRE members did not vote. The party is pleased with the result of the vote.

Karis said he will not go begging for extra votes. "I do not believe I should convince anyone. If party members have questions, I will certainly answer them. But I will not call MPs and hand them pens," he said after the results were announced.

The second round of voting will take place on Tuesday. If it is inconclusive a third round will follow on the same day.

August 31: Second vote

Alar Karis was elected president, winning 72 votes of the 80 ballots cast by members of the Riigikogu.  EKRE did not cast their ballots and neither Siim Kallas (Reform) and Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa) voted as they were both in hospital.

The counting was held up by 30 minutes by a protest from an EKRE MP.

After the result was announced, Karis said: "I would like to thank everyone who voted for me, as well as those who did not. I promise to be a good partner to the Riigikogu. Thank you very much."

Speaking at a press conference later, he said: "I will try to communicate with all political forces and find a way for Estonia to develop further."

In the morning both Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) said they would support Karis for president. The SDE gave up hope current President Kersti Kaljulaid would be reelected.

In the evening Karis had a late lunch with Kaljulaid at Kadriorg.

Kersti Kaljulaid meeting Alar Karis at Kadriorg on Tuesday. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

  

 

Presidential Election 2021: Background

Members of the Electoral College at the Estonia Concert Hall. Source: Rene Suurkaev/ERR

First and foremost, who are the candidates for president?

Alar Karis, Estonian National Museum (ERM) director, former auditor general and former University of Tartu rector, is the only candidate so far. ERR carried out a brief interview with Karis which can be read here.

Who is supporting the candidates?

In the Estonian presidential system, candidates are nominated by members of the government and parliamentary political parties (Reform, Center, Isamaa, SDE, EKRE).

Twenty-one signatures of support are needed for the nomination and 68 votes are needed to win. Therefore, parties must work together to elect a president.

This year, Reform and Center are supporting Karis. Isamaa and SDE have said they would not support Karis outright but will allow their Riigikogu members to vote freely in the election.

EKRE is proposing former Riigikogu speaker Henn Põulluaas.

Neither Isamaa not SDE have nominated their own candidate. No other candidates have been put forward or are even being discussed in public.

Something to keep in mind is the number of seats each party has: Reform (34 seats), Center (25 seats), EKRE (19 seats), Isamaa (12) and the Social Democratic Party (11).

Why has it taken so long to agree on candidates?

In short, because the parties could not agree to support one candidate.

As mentioned above, members of the Riigikogu must put nominate presidential candidates. Twenty-one MPs' signatures are needed for a candidate to proceed to the election.

To become president, a candidate must win 68 votes - a majority of two-thirds. This means a candidate needs support from several parties to be elected and this was causing a problem. To reach 68 votes, it is likely four parties need to back one candidate as party members do not all have to vote for the same candidate.

In 2016, there were three candidates proposed for the first round of voting but nobody gained enough support to be elected in the Riigikogu. As several well-respected and high-profile people were nominated and promised support in 2016, which failed to materialize, this has made many hesitant to put themselves forward this time.

Last time, after three failed votes, the Riigikogu failed to agree on a candidate so the decision was moved to the electoral college - which also failed to elect a candidate after two rounds of voting. The process then moved back to the Riigikogu. This was seen as an embarrassment for the Riigikogu who do not want to repeat the episode in 2021.

This time the Reform-Center coalition is trying to make sure a candidate has enough support to be elected before they are proposed. But as the two parties only have 59 votes between them, additional votes from opposition parties Isamaa, the Social Democrats (SDE) or EKRE are needed.

EKRE has its own candidate, while SDE and Isamaa have complained they are being left out of the process by the coalition.

Agreeing on a candidate, even just between Center and Reform, has taken a long time and Alar Karis was suggested with less than two weeks to go before the first vote. Candidates are not nominated until the week before voting starts, so technically the process of finding a candidate can continue up until two days before the vote takes place.

In 2016, there were five candidates in the first round of voting: former education minister Mailis Reps (Center Party), former MEP and Reform party chair Siim Kallas (Reform), lawyer Allar Jõks, former foreign minister Marina Kaljurand (SDE) and former interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE).

It is unusual that there are so few candidates this year.

Have any other candidates been proposed so far?

Yes, several.

President of the Academy of Sciences Tarmo Soomere put himself forward for the role. He held discussions with parties two weeks ago but did not gain enough support to be nominated for the first round of voting.

Current President Kersti Kaljulaid said on August 16 that she is prepared to run for a second term but is currently not supported by any parties. However, members of SDE have said they would prefer if she were to continue as president.

Former minister of IT and Trade Kaimar Karu, who was affiliated with EKRE but never a member of the party, has also put himself forward.

Chairman of the Center Party and former Prime Minister Jüri Ratas has said he will not run. Former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016) also ruled himself out.

It is thought former Minister of Defense Jüri Luik (Isamaa) would be able to win more than 70 votes but he has declined an offer to run. Luik is about to become Estonia's ambassador to NATO, and no longer sees himself involved in domestic politics.

Former speaker of the Riigikogu Henn Põlluaas is the ERKE party's candidate but it is thought unlikely he will receive 21 nominations to become an official candidate. EKRE only has 19 votes in the Riigikogu.

Why can't Kersti Kaljulaid continue as president?

Technically, she can as she has only served one five-year term and could be nominated for a second.

However, Kaljulaid is unpopular with the parties in the former Center-Isamaa-EKRE coalition which lasted from March 2019-January 2021. They believe she was too political - and critical of them - in her role.

One reason is, in December 2019, Kaljulaid said the coalition was a threat to the constitutional order and security of Estonia. Postimees reported that she had asked Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) to dismiss interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE) after he made insulting comments about the Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

Asked if Kaljualid still felt the government is a threat to constitutional order seven months after they took office, she said: "Yes, in that they are calling into question section 12: that everyone is equal. I also believe it is a threat to national security. Thinking back only to the past month, the interior minister [Mart Helme] has meddled in foreign policy twice and set about shaping it. All of it affects our security network. The survival of a small country largely depends on how many partners and allies we have and how they see us: whether they perceive us as similar or different."

Chairman of the Center Party's Riigikogu faction Jaanus Karilaid told newspaper Postimees (August 28) that one of the reasons the party will not support Kaljulaid is because she was critical of the Estonian government in the international media.

Speaking to American magazine Foreign Policy in July 2019 about EKRE's involvement in the coalition at the time, Kaljulaid said: "I hate them for their behavior, and I apologize for the image this might give. Decent people do not behave themselves this way.... I really hope they will have no effect on our economic and political development... Again, I really hate it that they behave this way."

Karilaid also said that Kaljulaid's veto of the second pillar pension reform bill was "political and not based on the spirit of the constitution". Kaljulaid lost the dispute over the second pillar in the Supreme Court and it entered in to law.

"Kaljulaid has been a divider of society... she has not been able to bind society together," Karilaid said. He called both former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Kaljulaid "political activists".

Both Karilaid and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) told Postimees they want a president who is more inward-facing with a focus on Estonia and said someone similar to the former president and current honorary chairman of EKRE Arnold Rüütel would be a good fit.

Former prime minister and Chairman of the Center Party Jüri Ratas said on Sunday (August 29) the last five years have shown that Kaljulaid cannot unite society. He also said she has been too passive during the coronavirus crisis and that the Center Party wants a change.

As members of the Center Party have ruled out supporting Kaljulaid this means the current Reform-Center coalition cannot propose her as a candidate - despite Reform backing her for a second term when the party was in opposition.

The Social Democrats said the party would support Kaljulaid if Center and Reform agreed to as well. 

Kaljulaid could still be proposed as a candidate by the Electoral College if the Riigikogu does not elect a president in the first rounds of voting on Monday.

When will we know the result? 

It largely depends on what happens on August 30 but a new president needs to be in office by October. If the first round of voting is successful, we will know by approximately 4 p.m. on Monday.

Timeline of events

ERR's Estonian service published a rough timeline which is republished below:

August 26: Registration and nomination of candidates starts at 9 a.m. A candidate needs the support of at least 21 MPs to be officially nominated.

August 28: Registration of candidates ends.

August 29: The National Election Committee will announce the list of candidates.

August 30: An extraordinary Riigikogu session will start at 1 p.m. to elect a president. The vote takes place by secret ballot between the 101 members of the Riigikogu. Sixty-eight votes are needed to win. The result will be known by approximately 4 p.m.

If the vote is inconclusive, a second will be held at noon the next day.

August 31: New candidates will be nominated between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. and a new vote held at noon. If this second vote also fails, a third voting round will take place at 4 p.m. between the two candidates who received the greatest number of votes in the second round.

If the third vote fails, the process moves to the electoral college.

September 18: The electoral college gathers to choose electors and candidates. Each local government council shall elect at least one representative, who must be an Estonian citizen, to the electoral body.

September 21-23: New candidates are nominated. The Riigikogu will put forward the two candidates who received the greatest number of votes in the Riigikogu. The electoral college can also nominate its own candidates. Again, 21 votes of support are needed.

September 25: Electoral college voting starts at noon. The list of candidates includes those from the third round of voting in the Riigikogu and any newly proposed candidates put forward by the electoral college.

If the first round is inconclusive, a second round takes place at 4 p.m between the top two candidates.

Should this vote prove inconclusive as well, the process returns to the Riigikogu and starts again. Which is what happened in 2016.

Is there any criticism of the Estonian presidential election system?

Yes. Several parties have called for the election system to be reformed and to change the process to allow the Estonian people to elect the president, rather than the government. EKRE has been the most vocal but the Center Party has recently said it will propose new legislation.

  

Election Process

Former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves handing power to Kersti Kaljulaid in 2016. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Who votes for a new president?

The Riigikogu and the electoral college. The Estonian president is not directly elected.

Who can propose candidates?

The Riigikogu and the electoral college.

Who can be nominated?

Estonian citizens by birth over the age of 40.

How is the president of Estonia elected?

The president is elected by the Riigikogu by secret ballot and each member of the Riigikogu has one vote. Candidates need 21 nominations to be proposed. For a candidate to win, a two-thirds majority - 68 votes - is required.

If no candidate receives the required majority, a new round of voting is held on the next day.

Before the second round of voting, a new nomination of candidates must be held. If no candidate receives the required majority in the second round of voting, a third round of voting shall be held on the same day between the two candidates who receive the greatest number of votes in the second round.

If a president is still not elected in the third round of voting, the chairmen of the Riigikogu will convene an electoral body to elect the president, which must take place in the next 30 days.

The Riigikogu will present the two candidates who receive the greatest number of votes in the Riigikogu to the electoral body as candidates for president. The electoral body can also nominate a candidate.

The electoral body will then elect the president by a majority of the voting electoral body members.

If no candidate is elected in the first round, a second round of voting shall be held on the same day between the two candidates who receive the greatest number of votes. 

Should this prove inconclusive as well, the process returns to the Riigikogu.

Source: President's website

What is the electoral college?

The electoral college is made up of members of the Riigikogu and representatives of the local government councils. Each local government council shall elect at least one representative, who must be an Estonian citizen, to the electoral body.

There will be 208 members of the electoral college this year.  

  

President of Estonia's role and duties 

The president's office at Kadriorg. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

What does the president of Estonia do?

The president's role is largely ceremonial but they play an important role in Estonia's international relations and the creation of legislation.

Internationally: The president represents Estonia in international relations, appoints and recalls diplomats, receives the credentials of diplomatic agents accredited to Estonia and awards state decorations in coordination with the Riigikogu.

Domestically: The president declares regular elections to the Riigikogu, convenes and opens the first session of the new membership of the Riigikogu. The president has the right to convene additional and extraordinary sessions of the Riigikogu in cases as stated by law.

The president proclaims laws passed in the Riigikogu. This is the sole competence of the president in which no other constitutional institution is involved. The president may also refuse to proclaim a law passed by the Riigikogu and return it together with his reasoned resolution to the Riigikogu for a new debate and decision.

More about the president's powers and responsibilities can be read in the Constitution (link in English).

How long is a term of office?

Five years. A president can sit for two consecutive terms, and further, non-consecutive terms.

Oath of the president

Upon taking office, the president agrees:

In assuming the office of President of the Republic, I [given name and surname], solemnly swear to steadfastly defend the Constitution and the laws of the Republic of Estonia, to exercise the power entrusted to me in a just and impartial manner, and to faithfully perform my duties with all of my abilities and to the best of my understanding, for the benefit of the people of Estonia and the Republic of Estonia.

§ 81 of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia

 

Former presidents of Estonia

Former President Arnold Rüütel, President Kersti Kaljulaid and husband Georgi-Rene Maksimovski, and former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Oct. 10, 2016. Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR)

Since 1938, Estonia has had five presidents. Kaljualid was the first female head of state.

Konstantin Päts: April 1938 - July 1940

Lennart Meri: October 1992 - October 2001

Arnold Rüütel: October 2001 - October 2006 

Toomas Hendrik Ilves: October 2006 - October 2016 

Kersti Kaljulaid: October 2016 - October 2021 

 

Note to readers

This article will be regularly updated with relevant news and developments.

Additionally, feedback is welcome, email: helen.wright@err.ee

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Editor: Helen Wright

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