Andreas Ventsel: What exactly is the president's symbolic power?

Andreas Ventsel.
Andreas Ventsel. Source: Kaupo Kalda

There should not be any utopic requirements expected from the upcoming president so that there would be no need for disappointment later. All the more so as we give the president's words and actions symbolic values and meanings in time, writes University of Tartu semiotics associate professor Andreas Ventsel.

The topic of presidential elections has been in the center of the media's attention for the 1-1.5 years. Some of the things being discussed are the political power of the position, should the president choose the Riigikogu or should it be time to make it a direct election and what kind of characteristics should a candidate have.

There are also statements that want to lose the presidential institution in Estonia altogether or replace it with the position of state elder, someone who would "also lead the Riigikogu as a non-partisan official," (link in Estonian) or as another voice from the crowd said: "it could be a sheep for all I care" (link in Estonian).

Why not, a cat named Stubb did hold down the post of mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, for more than 15 years since residents were disappointed in all of the people running for mayor. True, it will likely not go this way now because someone would have to present the cat as a candidate and the deadline is coming up.

The presidential position is certainly not necessary from a functioning state perspective. As is known, the Republic of Estonia did not have a president in its early years. But we will proceed forward with the fact that the presidential institution is defined in the Constitution and the limits of power are also nicely defined in the same text.

One of the most emphasized aspects left out of the limits of power and something that is mostly associated with the presidential office is the symbolic power accompanying the position. In what follows, we will discuss what this symbolic power is because there are often opinions that symbolic power is no power at all.

Symbols accompanying the president

In general terms, we can speak of three aspects of symbolic power: symbols of state power, power over symbols and the symbolic functioning of power.

The presidential office brings together all three of these aspects. The presidential institution is one of the symbols of state power, functioning along other accompanying symbols, whether it be an honor guard in front of the presidential castle (Kadriorg - ed), certain regulations for audience or the president's pay.

These make up a certain system of symbols that accompanies every other (state) office, more or less. With higher positions comes higher symbolic value and stricter regulation of the symbolic system. From the position of daily state functioning - such as drafting, adopting and enforcing laws - the president might not own any practical value. But only if we understand this practical value in a very tight and mercantile manner of "money for me, pickles for you".

Since our everyday practical actions are based on identity in some capacity, meaning the ways we relate to the world, these symbols take on a different weight. The symbols accompanying the presidential institution create an emotional connection between me as a resident and the state where I belong to. These provide the necessary sense of community that is an essential precondition for any kind of delimitation and implementation of social activities.1

Often times, a "failure" in the symbolic system is perceived as an infringement of the established connection between citizen and state. When president Kersti Kaljulaid came to swear in the new Riigikogu wearing a sweatshirt or when she was spotted on a ferry wearing rubber boots, some people perceived it as a violation of the established symbolic image of the president.

At the same time, the symbolic power accompanying the presidential office gives these unusual actions a symbolic dimension.

Communications expert Raul Rebane has noted that a press conference given by president Lennart Meri on March 27 1997 in the bathroom of Tallinn Airport is still being brought up in public relations textbooks as a particularly good example of the effective use of symbolic power. The president's act, which seemed unusual at first (press conferences are not usually held in bathrooms, especially ones involving a president), turned into an act with symbolic value, since it changed peoples' behavior and attitude.

In the same way, the sweatshirt, which violated the norms of the festive moment, amplified the message written on the shirt of president Kaljulaid. It received attention and left a long-lasting imprint in the audience's memory. As a confirmation of this, sweatshirts with similar messages have become a common sight on the streets. Kaljulaid would have hardly succeeded if she had only made this remark to the Riigikogu and the cameras verbally.

Power over the president as a symbol

Power over symbols points to a different situation - here, the goal is the monopolization of the meaning of a certain symbol, which can be used to exercise power going forward.

Cultural semiotician Juri Lotman has written that the potential meaning of a symbol is always greater than its meaning in the moment. This means that connections the symbol enters into through one semiotic environment or another do not exhaust all possibilities of its meaning. On the one hand, the symbol maintains its historically established meaning through the flow of time, the so-called memory of previous generations. On the other hand, the symbol actively relates to its cultural context, transforms because of it and transforms it (cultural context - AV) itself.

This means the meaning of symbols fixates only in a certain moment in time and depends on the social-economic background of that moment.

One of these fixating factors is politics, of course. Certain historical events and characters becoming canonized in the pantheon of state history largely depends on political choices. These choices give them the status of symbol in the greater mythical framework and fixates their meaning.

With the term "myth" here, I am not referring to the falsification of historical facts, but instead to the treatment of history through and identity perspective, "which keeps society's past present and draws its future orientation power".

A similar battle over historical symbols can be seen in debates around the monument for Konstantin Päts in Tallinn. The question is not only the monument's aesthetical form, but a more principled one: does Päts even deserve a monument in the capital, which would mean canonizing his contribution, turning him into a symbol in the narrative of Estonian history and how would that narrative itself change?

At the same time, there is a tendency that the more authoritarian and totalitarian the power, the more it cares about the purity of the canon of symbols. Changes in canon mostly take place as side effects of major historical breakthroughs, where earlier idols are destroyed and new approaches to history are drawn up. Estonia has gone through these breakthrough moments, where older monuments and statues are destroyed and streets and roads are re-named, repeatedly over the last century.

Luckily, the situation in Estonia is not like that and different discussions over how suitable a monument to Päts is in the capital or what the presidential institution is are a common phenomenon in journalism. It is exactly why we can call it a peaceful struggle over the meaning of the president as a symbol.

A special case is a situation, where the actual acquisition of a power symbol supports the exercising of a countering power. The Estonian presidential ceremonial chain (worn by Konstatntin Päts - ed) being held by Russia is an example of this kind of power. Leaving aside the possibility that this particular chain has magical powers, we can see that having this symbol of power allows Russia to exercise power. Russia is using the Estonian president's ceremonial chain as a currency to achieve its political goals - returning the ceremonial chain would call for a favor or can be converted into a symbolic gesture of Russia's "goodwill".

The symbolic power of the presidential institution

In the context of symbolic power, a lot has been made about the role of the upcoming president as a symbolic connector of people, capable of bringing together a polarized society.

Maarja Vaino pointed out five characteristics (link in Estonian), which the president should have to restore the presidential institution's dignified image. Without agreeing here that the dignity of the presidential institution has been lost in Estonia (if anything has been lost, it is the dignity of those attempting to use the presidential position for their partisan purposes, these qualities are:

  1. independent thinking to protect and represent Estonia's interests;
  2. a cultural layer, which ensures that the future president honors the legacy of our great men and ancestors;
  3. a sense of humor;
  4. empathy, which ensures that they are able to represent the attitudes and opinions of their people, even if they do not coincide with their personal opinions;
  5. dignity

I believe most Estonians would sign these five defining features of a president, which basically refer to symbolic authority as a function to unify people.

While beautiful ideally, the definition of people in this equation of the presidential institution's symbolic authority is problematic. To please a large part of the people, this ideal expects people to be treated homogeneously. Unfortunately, that is not what people are.

The actions and positions of statesmen are made important to us by the meanings which we attribute to them. It is characteristic of this process that the more there are people involved in communication, the more difficult it is to reach a consensus on the meaning of an action or a word. Independent thinking is however characterized by a clear distinction of the terms used, which make a vague position my position.

Honoring the legacy of great mean is no easier task, because legacy is not something that the president can pick up off the shelf. The aforementioned debates over whether or not president Päts deserves a monument in Tallinn are a good example. Not to mention finer interpretations of the twists and turns of Estonia's recent history and peoples' roles in it.

Moreover, people do not speak, but politicians speak for the people. This means that if a future political force does not like the president's stances, the battle will be directed at undermining the president's symbolic power. The current president has been accused (whether justified or not, that is not the subject of this article) of taking clear positions and the accusers have mostly come from the political elite. Similarly, Lennart Meri was under constant fire, although now his criticized views are often cited as examples of statesmanlike behavior.

In conclusion, the problematic nature of symbolic power and its application comes down to the problematic nature of symbolism. The latter is a communicative phenomenon in nature and we give current actions and symbols new meanings. This also applies to the actions of the president. Meaning, no utopic requirements should be expected of the president so there would be no need for disappointment later.

1 Kertzer, David I. 1988. Ritual, Politics, and Power. New Haven: Yale University Press.
2 Lotman, Juri 1999. Sümbol kultuurisüsteemis. – Semiosfäärist, 219–236, Tartu: Vagabund, lk 223–224.
3 Assmann, Aleida 2021. Mineviku pikk vari. Mäletamiskultuur ja ajaloo poliitika. Tallinna Ülikooli kirjastus, lk 50.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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