Center, Isamaa, SDE all want president elected at Riigikogu

A Riigikogu sitting in process.
A Riigikogu sitting in process. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Leaders of three of Estonia's political parties say that they want this year's presidential elections to be decided at the Riigikogu and not continue via the electoral college. At the same time, none of them have suggested a candidate who could facilitate this.

Jüri Ratas, both Center Party leader and Riigikogu speaker, has reiterated that he wants the presidential elections to be a swift affair this year, unlike in 2016 when the process was particularly protracted.

Center is in office with the Reform Party, while the leaders of two of the opposition parties, Isamaa (Helir-Valdor Seeder) and the Social Democratic Party (Indrek Saar) agree with Ratas.

At the same time, Ratas did not come up with a potential candidate who could get elected in the Riigikogu ballot rounds, noting that this was a matter for the politicians and not the media or the public.

Ratas said: "In a situation where politicians are talking to each other, are talking to different candidates, then this is work-in-progress, and this search certainly not carried out in the columns of the press."

Presidents are not elected directly by the people, but via several stages of balloting at the Riigikogu, followed by the regional electoral colleges should this draw a blank.

"But if you are asking if there's someone I'm talking about, then I'm thinking about, then yes, there is," he added.

Ratas himself was linked with a potential presidential bid until ruling himself out several weeks ago. As Riigkogu speaker, this would have meant that he would have presided over the very election he would have been candidate in, had this been the case.

He has stressed several times he wants the president elected via Riigikogu ballots, which start at the end of August, and for the process to not go to the regional electoral colleges, as would be the case if the Riigikogu draws a blank.

Only one elected party, the opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), has put forward a candidate so far – Henn Põlluaas, a former speaker. With 19 Riigikogu seats, EKRE would need two more MPs to endorse his candidacy even just to run, to meet the required 21 votes.

Over two-thirds (67 or more votes) at the 101-seat Riigikogu are required for a president to get elected, meaning parties have to come to an agreement on a candidate at some point in proceedings.

While incumbent Kersti Kaljulaid, eligible for a second consecutive, five-year term, has been criticized from various quarters as too "polarizing", no unifying candidate has been publicly announced yet.

While Kaljulaid herself has not declared whether she will run or not, the deadline to do so is only four days before the start of the elections at the end of August.

One option in finding a unifying candidate would be to pick a figure not from any of the political parties.

When asked about his prognosis of this, Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder said that: "Such theoretical philosophizing does not contribute to the process. It has not helped in the past either. In the end, the choice has still been based on specific circumstances, people, agreements," adding that Isamaa does not plan to nominate its own candidate.

"We would like to look for a real president for Estonia, not just to take part in the presidential elections. It is not our goal to reach an agreement with someone in order to play at presidential election games," he went on.

"Our preference is a common candidate with broader support, not our own candidate that we could nominate."

Estonian presidents must be non-partisan, meaning they must leave any political party they are a member of, before taking up office. Kersti Kaljulaid had been working long-term at the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg before she was plucked from relative obscurity in 2016 by parliament's council of elders, consisting of speaker (at the time, Eiki Nestor (SDE)), deputy speakers and party group leaders (which are generally not the same as the overall party leader - for instance Priit Sibul is Isamaa's Riigikogu group leader), after Riigikogu and electoral college rounds had proved inconclusive.

Kaljulaid had in the past worked as an advisor to Mart Laar when he was prime minister.

Social Democratic Party (SDE) chief Indrek Saar said no attempts had been made at finding a candidate from the party's ranks, or supported by the party as a whole. On being asked if that may change and if the party - which has 10 Riigikogu seats – would seek support from the other represented parties, Saar said that nothing could be ruled in or out as things stand. "We'll see," he said.

News portal Delfi reported last week that Jüri Ratas had put former defense minister Jüri Luik (Isamaa) forward as a candidate. While Luik's name had been mentioned in the past in connection with a possible bid, he recently took up a post as Estonia's ambassador to NATO and, according to Delfi, has passed on Ratas' offer.

The arrival of the mid-summer break in late June, and the relative lull period through July has doubtless had an impact on proceedings too – Helir-Valdor Seeder said the issue has not been discussed at parliamentary level since before midsummer.

Academic Tarmo Soomere has reportedly put his name forward as a candidate, while justice chancellor Ülle Madise has also been mentioned in media reports in connection with the role, though has not declared one way or another herself.

This year's presidential elections are complicated by the fact that, for the first time in a quarter of a century, they are closely followed by the local elections, which take place on October 17. Parties also want to concentrate on canvassing for these; should the presidential elections become as protracted as they did in 2016, the two elections would overlap.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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