Piret Ehin: Presidential election system in need of changes

Members of the Electoral College at the Estonia Concert Hall in September of 2016.
Members of the Electoral College at the Estonia Concert Hall in September of 2016. Source: Rene Suurkaev/ERR

The current presidential election system in Estonia entails uncertainty and indeterminacy that could work to undermine the legitimacy of elections, dissuade suitable candidates from running and alienate citizens from politics. In summary, the current system of electing the president needs changes, Piret Ehin writes.

The looming presidential election is mired in uncertainty and concern. Will there be dignified candidates deemed acceptable by political parties? Will the Riigikogu manage to elect the president or will the process move to the Electoral College? Will it be as cumbersome, dragged out and tense as five years ago?

The question of whether the presidential election system should be amended has been in the air for years. The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) and the Center Party support direct presidential elections, with polls suggesting that most Estonians agree.

A look at other EU member states reveals that the Estonian system has a lot of uncertainty and indeterminacy "built in." Candidates are registered a few days before elections, while new candidates can be set up after the first round of voting in the Riigikogu and before each Electoral College voting round. The constantly changing roster of candidates results in new (last minute) agreements between parties. Estonia is the only country in the world where the right to elect the president can move from one representative body to another. For the process to be smooth, we need certainty in terms of candidates and who will be doing the electing.

Electoral College not needed

To give up one electoral body, we should drop the Electoral College and leave the task of electing the president to the Riigikogu.

Why so?

Electoral colleges are a good fit for federal countries and those that have bicameral parliaments. Their purpose is to bring together the two chambers of parliament or boost the representation of different regions. Other EU member states beside Estonia to use an electoral college are Germany, where members of the Bundestag are joined by elected representatives of state parliaments, and Italy, where the college is made up of the members of the two houses of parliament and 58 regional representatives. Outside Europe, the method is used in India and the United States of America, for example.

I see no reason why a tiny unitary republic like Estonia should have a separate body for improving regional representation. Rather, its existence seems to suggest there is "something wrong" with the Riigikogu as a representative body. Knowing that the president needs to be elected in the Riigikogu no matter what would change parties' modus operandi.

The question of whether the current two-thirds majority criterion should be changed is somewhat difficult. It would be possible to drop the two-thirds majority requirement in favor of a full majority or more than 50 percent of all votes starting from a certain round of voting, as it is in Hungary. However, that would see the president elected with the coalition's votes in which case we could not talk about a broad-based agreement between parties nor, it is to be afraid, any serious effort to find it.

If this is not acceptable and sticking with a wider majority is preferred, the Greek variant, where two-thirds majority is required in the first two rounds, while 3/5 is sufficient in the third, could be considered. If no candidate manages to get the required majority in the third round, the parliament is dissolved and new elections declared. The new parliament will then elect the president in simplified procedure, with a 3/5 majority required in the first round and a full majority in the second, while a potential third round will see two candidates with the most votes run against one another.

It is to be believed that the potential dissolution of the parliament is motivation enough for cooperation between parties in order for the president to be elected.

Direct presidential elections no miracle cure for apathy

Direct presidential elections are quite widespread in parliamentary democracies. Therefore, electing the president directly would not be unthinkable in Estonia.

A direct mandate from the people lends the institution weight and could create pressure for expanding the president's formal powers. However, recent studies have shown that claims according to which direct presidential elections in parliamentary systems automatically result in presidential activism, the politicization of the institution and social polarization or even pave the way to authoritarianism are unfounded. Political scientist at the Washington University in St. Louis Margit Tavits' study also suggests that direct presidential election is no miracle cure for citizens' apathy and political alienation.

We are used to electing representative bodies in Estonia, such as the Riigikogu, European Parliament or local government councils. That is why it is important to understand what direct presidential elections would mean.

We need to be prepared for having to vote twice as it is quite possible no candidate will get the majority in the first round. The possibility of subsequent rounds of voting can only be ruled out by opting for an alternative system of voting, such as is used in Ireland, or settling for a simple majority. The latter means electing the candidate with the most votes – even if it is just 10 percent of the total number of votes.

The latter option is likely unrealistic. Proponents of direct elections need to be sure that they and their fellow citizens can be bothered to vote twice, with just a few weeks in between. Voter turnout dipping below 40 percent, as is often the case regarding European Parliament elections, would be a sad development in the presidential elections context. The danger is very real. Several countries are having trouble with low voter turnout. The rate of participation at presidential elections has been teetering on the 50 percent line in both rounds for the last few decades even in semi-presidential Lithuania (with the exception of the first round of voting in 2019 when it came to 57 percent).

Replacing the current system with direct elections, while not bothering to turn up to vote twice, would amount to replacing a smaller problem with a bigger one. We should also not expect e-voting to be a magic wand. Recent research suggests that those who want to participate will find a way, while e-voting is not enough to motivate abstainers.

On the other hand, contributing enough time, energy and taxpayer euros to the process and ensuring high voter turnout might create the impression that the president is far more important than the prime minister…

Presidential candidates should not present election programs or make political promises

When considering the preparedness of oneself and one's fellow citizens to elect the president directly and spend taxpayer money in the process, it should be kept in mind that the Estonian president has no legislative or executive power. Therefore, candidates will not be setting up programs or making political promises. Doing so would constitute pulling the wool over people's eyes.

As Tarmo Soomere rightly told Eesti Päevaleht (Link in Estonian) in July: "A candidate cannot and must not promise anything at elections. The president cannot pursue policy, has no money or support to distribute. Basically, the only thing the president can promise is that they will continue to be as decent a person as they have been until then." Therefore, debates between presidential candidates should not be expected to explode into the same kind of fireworks as their counterparts in USA, for example.

If direct elections are to be considered, why shouldn't their first round coincide with European Parliament elections? Both the Estonian president and the European Parliament are elected for a period of five years. Holding these elections together would be cost-effective and help boost participation on both fronts. Besides, it would very likely be necessary to vote twice in the presidential election anyway.

Voter turnout has traditionally been low at European Parliamentary elections in Estonia. Just 37.6 percent of voters came out in 2019. There is no way to be sure citizens would actively participate in direct presidential elections either – the stakes are not high as little depends on the president and turning out to vote or using e-voting two weeks apart is quite bothersome. Opting for a two-in-one solution would bring out mote voters and we might even see fruitful cross-pollination between European Parliament hopefuls' and presidential debates, especially on foreign policy.

The problem is that this would require harmonization of the two election cycles "by force" as they are off by several years today. It is very hard to imagine the term in office of an Estonian president being shortened or lengthened by several years in the interests of such a transition. Therefore, we can leave this high-flying fantasy aside.

In summary, our presidential election system needs changes. The current system where the authority of electing the president can move from one body to another is unique in the world and, as recent practice would suggest, is not working particularly well.

Uncertainty and indeterminacy accompanying the current system can undermine the legitimacy of elections, dissuade suitable candidates from running and alienate citizens from politics. Direct presidential elections are thinkable but would necessitate considerable change to constitutional order and political life.

The alternative is settling for a Riigikogu full majority or a coalition's president or ensuring wider support and forcing parties to cooperate by adding the possibility of the parliament being dissolved.

The presidential election this fall will determine politicians' preparedness to seriously debate changing the presidential election system in the future.



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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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