Kaimar Karu: Estonia deserves better from the presidential election

Kaimar Karu appearing on ETV politics show 'Esimene stuudio' in 2019.
Kaimar Karu appearing on ETV politics show 'Esimene stuudio' in 2019. Source: ERR

Presidential elections in Estonia are just around the corner. Two of the five parties in the parliament have enough seats to put forward an official candidate, but for that person to get elected, the MPs from at least three parties need to agree. Keeping in mind the current political reality, make that four. As can sometimes happen during turbulent, straining times, there is a risk of partisan politics taking precedence over dialogue and collaboration, writes Kaimar Karu.

Even though the President of Estonia has no political power, the compatibility of the person's political views with those of the party is of high importance for all five party leaders. This has increased relevance in the light of the local elections coming up later this year. The pronoun in "our president" could easily be misunderstood for that of the party, rather than the nation's people.

Estonia's constitution is very clear on the president's responsibilities within our parliamentary democracy. None of these is dependent on the person's political views, yet, the last five years have changed the public's perception of the role, and this, in combination with fond memories of the first post-soviet president, Lennart Meri, has created an incompatible set of requirements for the next president.

The role could be unnecessary, but it is definitely needed. The person should be like our current president, but not at all like our current president. They should be apolitical, but definitely an active politician. They should unite, but definitely take sides. They should be smart, but not smarter. They should be older, but definitely young. The role belongs to a woman, but definitely not a woman etc.

It is difficult to imagine a person active in politics today, fighting for their party's policies and against those from other parties representing roughly 80 percent of the voters, not always with the kindest of words, suddenly abandoning their raison d'être and becoming a party-agnostic, policy-agnostic promoter of common principles and decency over partisanship and one true answer to everything.

Before setting the selection criteria and definitely before speculating with any names, it would be good to think about what the country needs. What are the challenges Estonia and its people have to deal with in the coming years, considering our geopolitical position, threats and opportunities? We need to discuss how the head of state, in their international and domestic roles, can help achieve our objectives and mitigate risks. The role of the president is an active one, rather than a political trophy.

Those discussions, if happening, have gone unnoticed by the general public this time.

Again and again, we have found ourselves back on square one, none the wiser. Disappointed, worried, and in the spirit of getting involved rather than criticizing from the sidelines, I decided to throw my name in the ring, as suggested. I believe we need to find a better way forward and thinking out of the box seemed the best course of action. Now, two weeks later, I remain convinced that we need to alter course to avoid getting stranded.

A better understanding of the objectives and priorities would also address some of the recent concerns about the relevance of the role itself. Should a country so small even have an apolitical head of state, with all the ceremonies, rules, and costs involved? While I think the answer is yes, I also believe that addressing this question should come from the "What can the president do for Estonia?'" angle.

One of the most important questions that require a rethink is Estonia's position and role in the global arena, with or against the desires of various global superpowers. Our strength comes from close collaboration with our international allies, and the recent events on the Lithuanian border have shown both that international support is much needed, and that the voice of a small country can be made heard.

We need to ensure that our interests are represented at the highest level, and to be at the table as an equal, rather than getting the memo afterwards. This is not just about aggression on the borders, but any increasingly asymmetric acts of hybrid warfare. We need to stay several steps ahead and no one country can achieve meaningful results when acting alone, no matter what their size.

Many of the challenges in our region are foreign to large nations further away from us. Our immediate interests might not align. Coalitions and governments can change overnight, yet there is a need for consistency when representing our country's views and interests at the international level.

The president does not set foreign policy but can be a powerful actor in making sure we are seen, understood, and not forgotten. It would be wise for the parliament and the government to leverage those opportunities and ensure Estonia remains among those who set the pace and policies, rather than among those who follow, silently.

Thankfully, there are at least two topics where the room pays attention when Estonia speaks up: Cybersecurity and cyber warfare, an increasingly critical capability in hybrid warfare; and building a digital nation, with its secure electronic identities and services built for the citizens even in the remotest corners of the country, rather than for show or as a tick box exercise.

Underpinned by our world-class education system, these are the things Estonia is well known for, and it has helped open many international doors for our businesses, enabled successful international careers, brought us many startups, and given birth to tech unicorns. There is no better person than the head of state to keep promoting our experience and helping others to learn from us.

We are at a crossroads when it comes to parliamentary democracy. Many feel that the major parties do not represent the interests of the people anymore – not necessarily because they don't want to, but because they've lost the ability to listen to the people. Even the parties themselves have accepted this, and have deployed the narrative of referendums as the only way to learn what the people really want.

There have been many proposals to change how the president is elected. Changing the procedure will not address the matter of substance, I'm afraid – while the idea should definitely be discussed, it won't be a fix-all and the unforeseeable consequences will be amplified by current challenges in domestic politics.

The current process, though, will most likely need to be amended for the next round in five years. The nation's expectations do not match the way the potential candidates are sought, presented, and confirmed (or not). We can theorize whether different dynamics between the parties and improved willingness to work towards the same goals would remove many of the inefficiencies we see today, but parties in the foreseeable future are likely to dig the trenches deeper rather than get out of them.

Whether the parliament will succeed in electing the next president at the end of August remains to be seen. Current signals are not encouraging – with three weeks to go, we have no official candidates. This is not necessarily a problem, as per the procedures the names need to be announced only a few days before the election, but the likelihood of finding someone with enough supporters in the parliament remains slim.

It could well be that our hopes lie with the electoral body, with representatives from all over the country, who will take over if the president doesn't get elected in the parliament. I hope that no matter the number of steps it takes, we will find a great next president.

Estonia deserves a president who brings new energy to Kadriorg, a president who will not deepen the already existing rifts in the society and provides, when needed, a non-partisan platform for honest and open discussions about a sustainable path forward for Estonia and its people.

Kaimar Karu is a former IT and foreign trade minister.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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