'Rahva teenrid': Political parties playing long game on president elections

Saturday's 'Rahva teenrid' panelists, from left, Urmas Jaagant, Huko Aaspõllu and Martin Šmutov.
Saturday's 'Rahva teenrid' panelists, from left, Urmas Jaagant, Huko Aaspõllu and Martin Šmutov. Source: ERR

The continued vexed question of how the presidential elections might even get going, with just a month-and-a-half to go, was the subject of a Vikkeraadio politics talk show Saturday, with one panelist saying that in his view, Estonia's political parties are playing a long game, despite calls for the head of state to get elected as soon as possible.

Estonian presidents are not directly elected by the people, but rather follow a progression of rounds of ballots at the Riigikogu, which, if these are inconclusive, are followed by voting in a regional electoral college, before returning to the Riigikogu if this draws a blank. The final method if all else fails is to convene a council of Riigikogu elders, comprising speaker, the two deputy speakers and the party parliamentary leaders – which was how Kersti Kaljulaid was chosen in 2016.

Appearing on Vikerraadio politics talk show "Rahva teenrid" Saturday, Editor-in-chief of evening paper Õhtuleht pointed out that the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) put its cards on the table early on with Henn Põlluaas, once of only two officially-declared candidates – the other is academic Tarmo Soomere – which has the effect of Põlluaas, formerly Riigikogu speaker and now an MP, to introduce himself further as a candidate.

This does not mean that Põlluaas can necessarily even run as president, let alone become the head of state – a quorum of 21 votes at the 101-seat Riigikogu is required for a proposed candidate to become one in actuality, whereas EKRE has 19 seats, meaning it would need to attract at least two more MPs who favor Põlluaas.

In 2016, when the last presidential elections took place, Šmutov and his co-panelists, business daily Äripäev news editor Urmas Jaagant, and ERR's Huko Aaspõllu, agreed that candidates campaigned frenetically precisely because they wanted the president to be elected at the Riigikogu.

In the event that did not happen, with Kersti Kaljulaid ultimately being brought in as a "dark horse" candidate where all others had drawn a blank.

Things will be different this time around, Aaspõllu said. "This time we will not see such a campaign, and it the Riigikogu may also be given guidance in changing the system in the future."

While the protracted nature of the 2016 elections met with criticism, some have suggested the same routine will pan out this year.

Current incumbent Kersti Kaljulaid has not thrown her hat into the ring for a second term, and last autumn announced a bid for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) presidency, which proved unsuccessful. Former prime minister, and current Riigikogu speaker, Jüri Ratas, ended weeks of speculation last month by announcing he would not be a presidential candidate – as speaker he would be overseeing proceedings at the Riigikogu in any case.

Urmas Jaagant said that the five Riigikogu political parties may have decided to get the president elected in the electoral colleges, a regional system used if the Riigikogu ballots prove inconclusive.

This would, Jaagant said, permit Jüri Ratas to still run without reneging on his announcement that he would not – since the Riigikogu component would have already finished its processes.

Jaagant said that: "If we manage to find an individual able to get elected at the Riigikogu, then that is great. However, I don't think anyone realistically thinks this will happen, while at present hey are gauging the so-called field, as to how votes would fall in the electoral college."

The Riigikogu round of balloting lasts about a month-and-a-half, but requires known candidates, including those who might be running for a fall, the panel noted.

Part of the issue is finding a common candidate – while each of the five parties could put up their own candidates, two-thirds of the chamber is needed (67 or more votes) which means that at some point, parties have to agree on a candidate.

Even Reform and Center together, the two coalition partners, would need eight more votes to reach the two-thirds majority than their combined tally of seats would provide – and even that is assuming all of their MPs voted the same way.

Martin Šmutov suggested a non-partisan candidate as a possible solution; Huko Aaspõllu said candidates should be nominated earlier than the current regulations (which leave a deadline of just a few days before the election process starts – ed.).

Põlluaas at least has the advantage of being able to tour round Estonia over the summer to canvass, Aaspõllu added.

The presidential election process starts on August 31 and, for the first time in 25 years, sees the local elections follow shortly – on October 17, meaning parties are also gearing up for these elections, which are direct and whose franchise includes all foreign citizens with residency permits in Estonia.

Kersti Kaljulaid is eligible for a second, five-year term, under the constitution. Any subsequent terms beyond two must be non-consecutive.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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