Isamaa puts off presidential candidate decision to Wednesday

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Priit Sibul, chair of Isamaa's Riigikogu grouping.
Priit Sibul, chair of Isamaa's Riigikogu grouping. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The opposition Isamaa Party has not announced whether it will support Alar Karis' presidential candidacy and says it has postponed the decision to Wednesday. Isamaa joins the other opposition party weighing up Karis as the potential next president, the Social Democrats (SDE) who said earlier on Monday that they would also wait.

Both parties met Karis on Monday.

The two coalition partners, Reform and Center, have come out in favor of Karis, a former auditor general.

SDE and Isamaa, while they only have 11 and 12 seats respectively, hold the cards in that the two coalition parties need to find nine more votes from somewhere, before Karis could get elected.

The party's Riigikogu group chair Priit Sibul said Monday: "We decided that we would formulate our position by Wednesday and in the same arena that met with Karis today, Ie with an extended meeting of the party group and its board."

Sibul said that the party and Karis have both points of commonality and differences of opinion on worldview.

Sibul said: "There were issues where we have a common understanding, one of which was that this Karis saw that Estonians must remain the majority in Estonia, and that Estonia must move towards an Estonian-language education system."

Isamaa is a national conservative party on the whole.

The party's deputy chair, former foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu, had said earlier Monday that he thought Karis a serious contender for the role.

However, he also said he thought Reform and Center had sacrificed their own favored candidates, to reach a compromise.

Reform gave up support for current president Kersti Kaljulaid, while Center did the same with academic Tarmo Soomere, according to Reinsalu.

Sibul noted that the differences of opinion included the issue of dual citizenship, which the Isamaa is opposed to, do not mean Karis is unsuitable.

"Isamaa is not currently looking for a new chair, but a president for Estonia who could get elected to the Riigikogu. They don't have to fit with Isama on all positions, but it is important that we know what his positions are."

SDE's leader Indrek Saar, who has recently said his party would be back Kersti Kaljulaid for a second term, if others did too, said earlier Monday that his party needs to discuss the issue on a wider scale both within the party and via public feedback.

Estonian presidents are not elected directly by the populace, but rather by the Riigikogu in the first instance.

Karis had met with SDE from 11.00 am and then Isamaa from 1.30 pm Monday.

The other opposition party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), is going it alone with its own candidate, former Riigikogu speaker Henn Põlluaas.

The presidential election balloting starts a week today, August 30. Current speaker Jüri Ratas (Center) has consistently said he wants a president elected quickly, and in the chamber, and not over a protracted period in the electoral college stages which would ensue if the Riigikogu drew a blank.

Isamaa deputy chair: Karis would not attend a government oath-swearing ceremony in a sweatshirt

Urmas Reinsalu, Isamaa's deputy chair and a former foreign minister, said later on Monday that Alar Karis had answered some of the party's questions in a way that were largely in line with its policies, for instance on hate speech laws, immigration, and the relationship between the head of state and the church.

Writing on his social media account, ERR's online news in Estonian reports, Reinsalu stated that Karis had said a president should not make political statements, or to visit the Russian Federation without consulting with the Riigikogu first.

The current president has been charged with doing both of these by some.

Reinsalu added that Karis said he: "Would not have attended a sitting of the Riigikogu in a sweatshirt."

The latter statement was referring to the April 2019 swearing-in of the Center / EKRE / Isamaa coalition, at the Riigikogu, in which Urmas Reinsalu was foreign minister, where Kersti Kaljulaid attended wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "The word is free" ( "Speech is free", or more literally "the word is free").

The words were a play on an earlier Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) slogan and the incident came amid fears of a crackdown on media freedoms with the right-wing EKRE entering office.

Karis: "Also supported the continuation of administrative reform to enable Estonia to have capable local governments," Reinsalu said.

"In response to the question that if the president is not elected in the Riigikogu, would he be ready to run in the electoral colleges, he stated that this is a new situation that needs a new decision," Reinsalu added.

If next Monday's ballot and subsequent ballots at the Riigikogu do not return a head of state, the process moves to the regional electoral colleges – though these actually convene in Tallinn – for further rounds of ballots.

Karis also said he would not avoid attending major, public liturgical church services as head of state.

Again, this was in direct reference to one of the actions of Kersti Kaljulaid, in this case her declining a church service to be held by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Estonia (EELK) to herald her inauguration.

While previous presidents had had such services, Kaljulaid declined the offer after becoming president in 2016, though she has met with the EELK's leader, Archbishop Urmas Viilma, several times since then and has been in attendance at independence day services.

Estonia has no state church as such; the EELK is the largest single denomination.

Reinsalu added that Karis said it was important Estonians remain the majority in Estonia, and had expressed opposition to the EU's migrant quota pact.

The pact, introduced in the wake of the 2015-2016 migration crisis, assigned Estonia 550 migrants to be hosted over a two-year period.

On security and foreign policy, Karis had said that criticisms of the Center/EKRE/Isamaa's record he had made in another meeting with the Social Democrats earlier on Monday only related to statements made by then-interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE), and not to the coalition as a whole, Reinsalu reported.

Karis also said that he did not support hate speech laws, adding that what was in the constitution already was sufficient, but also that he would not promulgate a law repealing the Registered Partnership Act, if legal arguments had been advanced for declaring this theoretical law unconstitutional.

The Registered Partnership Act, also known colloquially as the cohabitation act, passed several years ago but has not been fully put into effect, as implementing legislation has not been passed.

The act would grant a degree of legal recognition to unmarried, cohabiting partners, both opposite-sex and same-sex.

Karis also said in the meeting that the validity of the Tartu Peace Treaty should not be declared separately from the ratification of a border treaty with Russia – Estonia's borders under the peace treaty in 1920 lay somewhat to the east of the present-day border.

Giving people the option to leave the second pillar of the pension system, an Isamaa-sponsored policy-made-law, was the right thing to do as well, Karis said, adding that he himself had not left the scheme.

This article was updated to include Urmas Reinsalu's summation of the content of Karis' answers to Isamaa questions.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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