Planned parties' presidential candidate meeting fails to go ahead

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Riigikogu ballot in progress during the 2016 presidential elections. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

No apparent progress has been made in the quest to find a presidential candidate amenable to Estonia's main political parties, with less than two weeks remaining until voting starts. A planned inter-party meeting Monday night did not go ahead, though Riigikogu speaker Jüri Ratas (Center) says the hope is that a common candidate will be ready for August 30.

Party chairs were supposed to meet Monday night to discuss the matter further, but this get together was canceled, ERR reports, as Reform's leader and prime minister Kaja Kallas was not able to attend.

Leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDE) Indrek Saar told ERR Monday evening that he did not know exactly when a replacement meeting may go ahead. Saar also said that the opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) was also invited to the meeting, although they have so far been going it alone with their own candidate, former Riigikogu speaker Henn Põlluaas.

Presidential election process starts August 30, head of state must be in place October 11

Working backwards and by the book, the next President of the Republic of Estonia, be it current incumbent Kersti Kaljulaid, who declared her intention for a second term Monday, or any other candidate, has to take office on Monday, October 11, less than a week before polling day for the local elections – open to all residents of Estonia to vote in – and in fact the same day the advance voting period for the locals begins.

Round one of balloting at the Riigikogu begins Monday, August 30, now less than two weeks away.

Presidents are not elected directly by the people, in Estonia, but rather via a system of Riigikogu ballots, followed by voting in provincial electoral colleges should parliament draw a blank, followed by a return to the Riigikogu should the electoral college stages also prove inconclusive. This was the path to Kersti Kaljulaid, who had been working long-term for the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg and was picked by a council of Riigikogu elders, took in 2016.

Center and Reform need support of third party's MPs to get their candidate elected

At the heart of the current impasse is an apparent lack of candidate agreeable to the two coalition partners, Reform and Center. The parties are the largest by representation (34 and 25 seats respectively), but also have not only their own relationship in office at the national level to think about, but also the local elections and their canvassing on these.

The poor public opinion of the presidential election process so far may also translate into low voter turnout for the locals, something which may hit Center in particular, while in the meantime the proposal from EKRE, Henn Põlluaas, has been touring the regions promoting his candidacy. This would require 21 votes at the Riigikogu to even stand – EKRE has 19 seats – but in the meantime Põlluaas' candidacy may make its effects known in the local elections as well.

No common candidate has been found which would be amenable not only to Reform and Center, but MPs from at least one other party – with 59 seats the two parties can get a candidate to stand but 68 or more votes are needed to get elected president, meaning MPs from either SDE or Isamaa or both need to get on board.

Ratas said:  "We will definitely continue working through this week to find a candidate. I think this is the last chance for everyone to come out with their own candidate, and it would be as good as it possibly could be for one candidate to have a broad support level."

Friday August 20 is national holiday

Center says it plans to approve its own candidate at a party board meeting on Sunday, August 22.

Friday, August 20, is a national holiday, when the current president, Kersti Kaljulaid, will host the traditional annual Kadriorg reception, and attend various other ceremonies.

If, however, no candidate is nominated for August 30, what happens then?

ERR's Toomas Sildam reports that the round will be considered a failure, per Estonian State Electoral Office spokesperson Kristi Sobak.

Even, say, 65 votes from the ranks of Center, Reform, SDE and Isamaa would constitute a failure, with a second ballot to be held the next day, August 31.

If Riigkogu ballots fail to find president, process moves to electoral colleges

Failure to elect a president at the Riigikogu as noted means the process continues at the regional electoral colleges, which comprises 208 members, down from 335 in 2016 following local government reforms.

The electoral colleges contain both local government representatives and MPs who were elected to the Riigikogu from the same electoral district at the last general elections in 2019.

Electoral rules in Estonia require that any candidate be officially declared from four days before the opening of the balloting process, i.e. from August 26 in this case.

The procedure from August 26 onwards looks like this:

  • Nomination of candidates starts on August 26 at 9 a.m. and ends on August 28 at 6 p.m. At least 21 MPs can officially nominate candidates. Center (25 seats), Reform (34 seats) and Isamaa and SDE together (12+11 seats) can do this alone, EKRE (19 seats) cannot.
  • Extraordinary Riigikogu session convenes 1 p.m. Estonian time on Monday, August 30, for the sole purpose of electing a president (the Riigikogu is still on its summer recess, which runs till mid-September, a couple of weeks later than usual, ostensibly to allow MPs time to campaign for the local elections).
  • Sixty-eight or more votes at the 101-seat Riigikogu (i.e. two-thirds of the chamber) are needed to be elected president. The ballot is secret.
  • If day one's round proves inconclusive, a second secret ballot takes place on August 31 at 12.00 p.m., with candidates being nominated between 8.00 a.m. and 10.00 a.m. same day.
  • If this round fails, the process repeats same day at 4 p.m. Should this third secret ballot also draw a blank, the process moves to the electoral college, nearly a month later, on September 25.
  • Riigikogu speaker Jüri Ratas gives the go ahead to the electoral college rounds.
  • Saturday, September 18: Local governments, on receiving notification from the election committee, convene to choose their presidential elector via secret ballot.
  • As in the Riigikogu, 21 votes or more are required to make a candidate official; submission of candidates starts the morning of September 21 and ends the evening of September 23.
  • The electoral college comprises all 101 MPs, dispersed across the 12 electoral districts they were elected to parliament in in 2019, plus 107 representatives from local government (see above).
  • The first round of electoral college voting takes place, in a central location – the Estonia concert hall in Tallinn, at 12.00 p.m. on Saturday, September 25. Ballot papers contain the names of those candidates from the inconclusive third round at the Riigikogu, plus any new candidates emerging from the electoral college nominations (in practice this may see Henn Põlluaas as an official candidate).
  • If the first electoral college round is inconclusive, a second ballot is held at 4 p.m. same day (September 25), with just the top two candidates by votes from round one running off against each other.
  • If things get to this stage the two figures are likely to be the current incumbent and the parties' common candidate.
  • Should this prove inconclusive as well, the process returns to the Riigikogu.

The council of elders which elected Kersti Kaljulaid in early November 2016 comprised then Riigikogu speaker Eiki Nestor (SDE), his two deputies, and the respective leaders of the six (now five) elected political parties.

Any presidential candidate who gets elected head of state must leave any political party which he or she belongs to. Toomas Hendrik Ilves had to leave SDE for this very reason, before becoming president for the first time in 2006. Ilves had renounced his U.S. citizenship some years earlier, prior to becoming Estonia's ambassador in Washington.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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