Tõnis Saarts: Presidential institution at an all-time low

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Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The worst outcome would see politicians refuse to take any kind of responsibility for repeatedly derailing presidential elections, while continuing to oppose the idea of direct elections. That would leave the institution at an all-time low, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Recent developments on the presidential election front could be summed up as looking for a president in a drought of candidates. If that is not a low point for the institution of president, I don't know what is.

What should we think in a situation where the position is sought by no more than a few persons with very different backgrounds and parties have no serious candidates to mention? One cannot help but draw the conclusion that the office of head of state is not particularly prestigious and political parties are not taking their obligation to find a suitable candidate seriously. Preparing for local government council elections comes off as a much higher priority.

Thinking of the recent refusal of Jüri Raidla to run for president, we might ask whether such negotiations and their outcome should even be public information. I think not. Responsible parties to negotiations would have kept it to themselves until after the election. This is not about individuals and their preferences but the prestige of the top symbolic office in the country.

More importantly, the true extent of damage done by the 2016 presidential election fiasco is now becoming apparent. Its effects also largely explain the current situation.

Excluding the reelection of Toomas Hendrik Ilves in the Riigikogu in 2011, Kersti Kaljulaid is the first president to have been elected without taking part in a single public debate or organizing an election campaign. In short, her election severed the institution's symbolic link to the people where presidential hopefuls are well-known, present their program, meet with people all over Estonia, engage competitors in debate etc.

Paradoxically, the way Kaljulaid was elected was in perfect harmony with the idea of the Constitution, according to which the president is elected as an agreement of elites in which the public has no role. And yet, the fact almost all presidential elections have made pretend that the people choose the president is what has lent the institution its legitimacy. The people know who is being elected, with representatives of the elite unable to completely ignore the public's expectations.

Things seem to be different this time around. Because the relative importance of mostly uncontrollable local government electors in the Electoral College has fallen, candidates no longer need to tour the country and campaign to try and please the locals.

In other words, party politicians have concluded that the president could indeed be elected purely as an agreement between parties. The popular election "puppet show" and events to involve the local elite might just as well be canceled.

While this might be described as rational, the question of how it will affect the public legitimacy of the presidential institution remains.

The other and even more important consequence of the previous election is mistrust deepening on very different levels. If before, indeterminacy in the Electoral College seemed mainly to be the result of local government electors voting unpredictably, 2016 showed that parties cannot even trust their own MPs, not to mention those of other political forces.

In other words, possible scheming needs to be counted on as opposed to being an exception. The result of this is that candidates who are approached can never take the offer seriously. No one wants the reputation of a loser from under whom the rug is pulled at the last minute. This is especially true for respected members of society with no political affiliation. Therefore, people turning down the offer and candidates numbering few is hardly any wonder.

This situation has left us with an almost complete lull in the opening stage of the presidential election, virtually no publicly engaging campaign and an air of mistrust in political circles. Another election culminating in a fiasco of parties trying to outsmart one another would lend the proponents of direct presidential election a lot of credibility.

It would increase the likelihood of Estonia going down the Czech path that used to have indirect presidential elections before a direct alternative was chosen after local politicians repeatedly demonstrated their inability to elect the president without major drama.

And perhaps it would not be a poor option for Estonia. The worst outcome would see politicians refuse to take any kind of responsibility for repeatedly derailing presidential elections, while continuing to oppose the idea of direct elections. That would really leave the institution at an all-time low or see it abolished altogether.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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