Opposition party leaders do not share the coalition counterparts' optimism that the only candidate running in Monday's presidential election first ballot, Alar Karis, will get the required majority to become head of state, though he may only miss out by a handful of votes, they say.
With 59 seats combined, Reform and Center, the coalition partners, are eight votes short of the 68 required for Karis, director of the Estonian National Museum (ERM) and a former auditor general, to become head of state.
The three opposition parties are the Social Democrats (SDE) with 11 seats, Isamaa with 12 and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) with 19.
The latter are running their own candidate, former Riigikogu speaker Henn Põlluaas, leaving SDE and Isamaa holding the cards on Karis' election. Recent indications have suggested that around half of each party's MPs would vote for Karis, but in general, since the ballot is secret, SDE and Isamaa members are remaining tight-lipped on the way they will vote.
SDE have in the recent past made no secret of an overall preference for Kersti Kaljulaid to continue as president with a second term, ERR reports.
Leaders or deputies of all five Riigikogu parties appeared on ETV politics panel show "Esimene stuudio" Sunday evening to hammer out the issues (see gallery above).
SDE MP: Exclusion of Kaljulaid not a pleasant turn of events
SDE MP Jevgeni Ossinovski told "Esimene stuudio" that the current president's exclusion from the process has been unpleasant.
Ossinovski said: "It is known to all that Jüri Ratas was unsympathetic towards a second term, but what is surprising is that the Reform Party also withdrew its support for Kersti Kaljulaid."
Reform had generally been associated with having good relations with Kaljulaid; the party was in opposition for most of her term, and the battle lines became even clearer when EKRE entered the coalition after the March 2019 elections and Reform was left out, despite winning most seats at the polls.
Now Reform is in office with Center, things are different.
"We have seen that the presidential election process, which could involve finding the best president for Estonia, has Kallas trying not to quarrel and to find a common candidate," Ossinovski went on.
Isamaa MP and foreign minister in the last administration, Urmas Reinsalu, said that the coalition looking for a new president was nothing shameful, and recalled Kallas' statement that the new president could be like a version of former president Arnold Rüütel, but one who speaks foreign languages.
Opposition leaders: Process of finding a common candidate mishandled
Both Ossinovski and Reinsalu warned that the way in which Karis had been selected, rather than the candidate himself, could throw a spanner in the works at Monday's ballot.
The pair found that one of the reasons why the two opposition parties have not officially supported Karis relates to the process of finding a joint candidate, where the candidates their parties have proposed have been rejected.
Reinsalu said that complaining to the two governmental parties that no joint candidate from the four parties (i.e. Reform, Center, SDE and Isamaa) is pointless.
He said: "An agreement between four parties is just that, an agreement between four parties - efforts must be made to achieve this. But the process has not been a high quality one."
Ossinovski told the panel it was also not worth looking for an apology over the numerous meetings between the four parties, because that was more a case of quantity rather than quality.
"The process has been of poor quality, meaning we do not know what will happen tomorrow (Monday - ed.)," Ossinovski said.
While Ossinovski and Reinsalu would not put a figure on how short Reform and Center might fall of getting the magic 68 votes, EKRE leader Martin Helme did, saying 65, or three short, was his prediction.
EKRE leader: If Arnold Rüütel was so appealing, why not back Henn Põlluaas
He also brought up Arnold Rüütel, saying that if he was such an attractive option, why did the other parties not put their support behind EKRE's candidate, Henn Põlluaas, who, Helme said, was the most reminiscent of the 2001-2006 president.
Helme said that the current incumbent does not understand fully what the role involves, and attempts to interfere in the legislature's work too much, among other things.
Karis, on the other hand, is too globalist and liberal for EKRE, he added.
If the first ballot fails to produce a head of state, this does not mean the Riigikogu has failed, Helme added, pointing out that the coalition's plan could also be to steer the process towards the electoral college, where a lower threshold of votes is needed to get elected.
If Monday's ballot draws a blank, up to two more votes are held Tuesday. If these, too, fail to produce a president, the process moves to the regional electoral colleges, made up of representatives of local municipalities plus MPs elected to that particular district at the last general election.
The electoral college convenes in Tallinn within a month of the Riigikogu ballots, with a maximum of two ballots held.
While 21 votes are still needed to officially run as a candidate – and ERKE's Henn Põlluaas may well find this figure at the electoral college – 50 percent of the electoral college (104 votes) is needed for a head of state to get elected, not the two-thirds required at the Riigikogu.
There are 208 votes on the electoral college – 107 from local government, down from 335 in 2016 following local government reform – plus the 101 Riigikogu MPs.
Prime Minister: Clear that Kaljulaid wouldn't get sufficient support
The relative last-minute nature of Karis as candidate – the proposal was only formally put to him two weeks ago by Jüri Ratas – demonstrates that party back-room deals are behind the quest to find the next head of state.
"This is not a good way to find a president. I would like the president to be tested via a public debate," Helme went on.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform), also appearing on "Esimene stuudio", said that it had become clear, after about a dozen Riigikogu party group meetings, that three parties would not be ready to support Kersti Kaljualid for a second term, meaning her reelection was not viable.
As noted, she mentioned Arnold Rüütel favorably.
"Rüütel had a great deal of support when he left office," she said.
Rüütel ran-off against Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the electoral college in 2006, with the latter winning more votes.
Center leader and Riigikogu speaker justified ruling out Kersti Kaljulaid for a second term on the grounds that her record shows she cannot unite society, that she has been too "passive" during the coronavirus pandemic, that his party wants a change and ultimately that she lacks political support to get reelected anyway.
Kallas, Ratas: Multiple candidates leads to stalemate, as in 2016
Both he and Kallas denied that having a debate with as high a number of participants as possible, as early as possible, before a presidential election was not the way to go, as previous elections have demonstrated.
At the last election in 2016, Kallas noted, there were several candiates, none of whom ended up as president, with Kersti Kaljulaid brought in from her previous role at the European Court of Auditors by the Riigikogu's council of elders, after the electoral college had drawn a blank.
"The debate five years ago led nowhere, led to a stalemate," Ratas concurred.
The candidates then were Allar Jõks, Siim Kallas, Eiki Nestor, Mailis Reps, Mart Helme and Marina Kaljurand (at various stages in the process, from the first Riigikogu ballot to the last electoral college vote).
The Riigikogu's council of elders comprises the speaker (in 2016, Eiki Nestor), the speaker's two deputies, and the Riigikogu group leaders of all represented parties (six of them, in 2016 – ed.).
Ratas, Helme: Direct presidential elections the way forward
Jüri Ratas and Martin Helme also reiterated a call for a move towards direct presidential elections. Center says it will be tabling a bill to do just that as soon as parliament convenes for its regular sittings, in mid-September.
The argument against direct elections mainly revolve around preventing the president's role, and the elections, from becoming too politicized.
Presidents must quit any political party they may be a member of before entering office. Toomas Hendrik Ilves had to do just that in 2006, leaving SDE before his first term.
The 2011 presidential election ended up a quite straightforward run-off at the Riigikogu, between Ilves and Indrek Tarand.
Editor: Andrew Whyte