Kajar Kase: Shocking success of presidential election

Kajar Kase.
Kajar Kase. Source: Private collection

The 2021 presidential election was a shocking success, a triumph of statesmanlike conduct and cooperation over party interests and cheap popularity, Kajar Kase writes.

The Riigikogu elected the president on the second try, whereas it is the first time in history where a new presidential candidate is elected in the Riigikogu (the parliament managed to elect the incumbent Toomas Hendrik Ilves in 2011, while it has to be said that finding a suitable candidate was much simpler then).

The starting position was not good. A year ago, I was sure that the presidential election taking place a month before its local council counterpart would motivate all parties to set up their own candidates.

In truth, only the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) fell out of line, with all other Riigikogu parties working together to find a president in the true spirit of the Constitution and, at the last minute, arriving at a candidate who got votes from all four parties to overcome the rather high 68 votes threshold.

Alar Karis got 72 votes on Tuesday. A powerful result. Allow me to provide the vote yields of previous presidential candidates in the Riigikogu for comparison.

1992. Lennart Meri 59 votes.
1996. Lennart Meri 52 votes
2001. Peeter Kreitzberg 40 votes
2006. Toomas Hendrik Ilves 65 votes
2011. Toomas Hendrik Ilves 73 votes
2016. Siim Kallas 45 votes

Therefore, we need to commend those who successfully brought this complicated procedure across the finish line, starting with party leaders Kaja Kallas (Reform) and Jüri Ratas (Center), Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa) and Indrek Saar (Social Democrats). Also, heads of Riigikogu groups who helped keep things running smoothly and, of course, all 72 MPs who voted for President-Elect Alar Karis.

We must also praise the presidential candidate for going through the gauntlet alone (at least to my knowledge), without outside help and rigid talking points. Despite ample chances to stray from the narrow path of a presidential candidate, Karis managed to convince people sporting very different worldviews from four parties that he is up to the task of serving as president.

But perhaps you will now say that you have read that it was all a big fiasco, embarrassing pushing and pulling and an opaque backroom game?

Such an impression could easily have been created in the press as this narrative was upheld by more than a few politicians, opinion leaders and journalists. To borrow a metaphor from the world of sports, the result of the game was declared in the middle of the first half that was immediately followed by a debate concerning the rules of the game – all without waiting for the final whistle to sound. Why was that?

Firstly, and as repeatedly said by Kallas and Ratas, the entire procedure unfolded in the spirit of the Constitution. Parties left their personal interests aside and searched for a common candidate. The law states that candidates need to be set up three days before the first round of voting, which is more or less when Karis was nominated. Therefore, the process was a resounding success from the constitutional point of view, with the candidate meriting votes from four out of five Riigikogu groups and being elected after the second voting round.

The problem is that finding out the candidate(s) three days before the election is not ideal from the point of view of constructive political debate and the press getting to examine them. Understandable. But that is what the authors of the Constitution wanted. We would be waiting for the Electoral College to convene had any of the four parties faltered at any moment leading up to Karis' election. It did not happen, even though all parties felt a strong political pull in that direction.

Could we know the candidates sooner in the future, before the deadline provided in the law? Most definitely regarding party candidates as we could see in 2001 and 2016. However, I remain doubtful when it comes to independent candidates as difficult negotiations are prone to arriving at an agreement at the last minute lest participants be left feeling they did not do everything in their power for the best possible result.

The second reason why public statements have not been supportive of the presidential election procedure has to do with the interests of the people making them. The press is obviously interested in presenting presidential candidates and organizing debates. It is to be understood as the press seeks to pursue journalism, which the way things turned out has not exactly facilitated.

Politicians seeks to elect the best possible president, whereas the question of whether the process yields immortal works of journalism is inevitably second rate. Therefore, we need to understand journalists, while we must also understand that their criticism of the process is perhaps not too sincere.

Representatives of opposition parties also have interests of their own, as does everyone else who does not take a shine to the current government for different reasons. They are also clearly motivated to make it look like things have never been as bad in Estonia. While one can say things aren't as bad as all that, standing on the other side of the political divide, such statements remain ineffectual until the results are in.

Therefore, the presidential election was a success, and I believe Estonia got an excellent president. Does that mean there are no more problems and we can try the same thing next time?

I do not really think so, even though turning the recent process on its head and going down the path of direct elections also does not seem right in light of recent experience. This would turn the process of choosing the president into a nationwide personal election that are always more attractive for citizens and the press than the contest of ideas and parties at parliamentary elections.

Should it then turn out, after all the fireworks, that the president is still a public servant of rather limited authority (true, one who throws fancy parties), it might come as quite a disappointment.

We could consider reforming the electoral system inside the framework suggested by Urmas Reinsalu: candidates being set up a few months before the election and the electoral process being adjusted to rule out sinking the election using empty ballots.

I believe that regularly asking parties about the reform could yield results. I'm glad President-Elect Karis also promised to keep the pot boiling during his first press conference in Kadriorg.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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