Opinion | Tarmo Soomere for president?

Tarmo Soomere.
Tarmo Soomere. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Tarmo Soomere's name was first mentioned in relation to a presidential bid back in March – in fact he announced it himself – and, while he was somewhat the gray man at that time, his momentum has suddenly grown now a political heavyweight in Jüri Ratas is behind him. He has a hard act to follow if he does become head of state, however.

Estonia has long been on the hunt for its new Lennart Meri, but scaling the lofty heights attained by the only post-restoration of independence head of state no longer with us is a challenge, even before you factor in the earthier practicalities of politics and its junction with the head of state – something which is still being hammered out, never more so than this year, when local elections loom a month-and-a-half after the presidential elections start, leave alone finish.

The presidential electoral system gets a lot of stick for its supposed opaque, convoluted nature; all the more reason why a solid candidate like Soomere fits. The system is a lose-lose situation with the public in any case – if the election is over swiftly at the Riigikogu, as has been called for this time around, the criticism will run along the lines of: "That old boys' cabal has been at it again and sneaked 'their' guy in without consulting us".  Spin out the elections to their maximum shelf-life as in 2016 and the chorus will be, well, the same.

It might be tempting to see these elections as "Ratas' revenge", given how strained his political relationship with the current president was when he was prime minister, in particular from April 2019, when EKRE entered office.

However, the speaker controlled all the in-and-the-out in 2016 just as much as he or she would do today; that hasn't changed.

The speaker until this spring was an EKRE MP – who has now declared an intention to run for president too and embarked on a canvassing tour of Estonia which will likely pay dividends in October rather than late August.

Ratas' name was also linked with the top job in the land earlier this year, and for quite some time. While everyone realized the obstacle this threw up, I don't think it was explicitly stated in the media: That would have meant overseeing his own election to office.

In any event, the speaker installed the president in 2016 and ended up with a much-loved candidate at least internationally. Why should that suddenly not be the case in 2021?

What there is to love about Soomere at this stage may not be clear to an outsider, but Kersti Kaljulaid, too, was the dark horse candidate.

I've never met Tarmo Soomere and I'm not even sure what the Academy of Sciences is exactly. I hear tell that he is loquacious, though, and his immediate attributes, both visually as a possible father figure to the nation, and –  second hand from what has recently been stated in the media – with his supposed pluses in being able to nail the international aspects of the job.

At 63, Soomere is also exactly the same age Lennart Meri was when he took office , albeit from the next generation down. He falls roughly on the mid-point between those presidents who were young when taking office; Toomas Hendrik Ilves (52) and Kersti Kaljulaid (46), compared with Arnold Rüütel, who was 73 when he first became head of state in 2001.

This means Soomere's still young enough for social media, too.

The gradual transformation from outlier to contender might remind us of another election which took place in late 2016. We all watched as Donald Trump's campaign morphed from what we presumed was a publicity stunt for one of his casinos, into being the official Republican candidate and eventually winning.

There all similarities cease, of course, and there won't be a polarized presidential election like that here in Estonia, there never is (though this year's could be presented that way, as we'll see), but so far Soomere's obscurity works to his favor. It's a good thing we may not quite know who he is. Do you like all that many of the people you "know", at least the poses they strike publicly, particularly on social media?

The current coalition is only a few months old and is in a tough spot at the moment. A safe presidential candidate helps them with that too, particularly as the strategy in January of picking some pretty anodyne people for ministerial posts – as a direct contrast to some of the ministers in the Center/EKRE/Isamaa line-up – runs out of steam.

Have the president on side, and you're safe in the national government.

Henn Põlluaas running also can give the impression of a real, democratic race between two very different candidates speaking for two, at least on the surface, different Estonias.

If Põlluaas fails to even get a nomination to run, his party will be able to play off the fall-out from that in October in the municipalities.

Ultimately, though, it is Center who will need Soomere the most. With a Ratas-picked president, the party's recently-tanking support levels may be shored up come October, while an orderly, dignified presidential election overseen by Ratas may temporarily restore public faith in Estonia and its political systems, and lead to a higher voter turnout.

Because a low voter turnout in the municipals will hit Center harder than any other party, as would Soomere failing to get the presidential nod.

The people do not choose the president, but it's vitally important they approve of them.

Tarmo Soomere can become president in the people's eyes before the event, just by dint of repetition. See his picture online, in the papers, on TV enough times next to the words "president" and it becomes a fait accompli almost.

This worked with Kersti Kaljulaid too – though after taking office not before – can again with any of the top international jobs her name has been associated with in the media.

Estonia wants to recapture the Meri factor as far as is humanly possible, and with Tarmo Soomere it can do so.

He still would need to get elected in parliament – even Popes need a two-thirds majority, and being the Ratas-approved candidate may cost votes too.

The convergence of elections and other events this summer and autumn, however, and the fact we're running out of road with exactly four weeks to go, make this very viable.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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