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Opinion digest: One year in, President Kaljulaid anything but toothless

President Kersti Kaljulaid.
President Kersti Kaljulaid. Source: (Ülo Josing/ERR)

While the Constitution would allow for a relatively bland character to hold the office, Kaljulaid shows all the signs of intending to follow in Lennart Meri and Toomas Hendrik Ilves' footsteps and develop a distinct agenda and profile of her own.

Daily Postimees wrote in its Wednesday editorial that President Kersti Kaljulaid plans to speak out in matters of Estonia's day-to-day politics more often.

The office of the President of the Republic is defined in such a way that whoever holds it doesn't necessarily need to be a particularly outspoken or high-profile character. Though since the country regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 at least three of Estonia's four post-occupation presidents have been strong characters with clearly defined agendas of their own, in theory the job could be done by a quiet bureaucrat as well.

The Estonian president has a mainly ceremonial role, but this doesn't mean that the list of her tasks is short: She acts as the country's highest representative, calls parliamentary elections, convenes and opens parliament, appoints the prime minister and government members, can propose extraordinary sessions of the Riigikogu, promulgates laws and has the option to send them back to the Riigikogu, and nominates the heads of Estonia's constitutional institutions.

But she also appoints and recalls diplomats, initiates constitutional amendments, appoints judges, confers state decorations and military as well as diplomatic ranks, nominally is the supreme commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, proposes the declaration of a state of war or emergency to the Riigikogu, call for the mobilization of the military reserve, acts as the head of the State Defence Council, executes clemency, and can initiate criminal proceedings against the Chancellor of Justice.

The president's job description is neither short nor short of challenges. Still, perhaps the most important function of the Estonian head of state is to do the things that are not explicitly mentioned, namely to caution and to comment on the political goings-on in the country.

Kaljulaid's predecessors have all done this, if to a varying degree. While Arnold Rüütel, president from 2001 to 2006, was a somewhat quieter participant in political life, both his predecessor, Lennart Meri, and his successor, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, have become famous for their frank and sometimes rather plainspoken criticism of the way things are done in Estonia.

The current president seems intent to follow the example of Meri and Ilves. Already in her first year in office, Kersti Kaljulaid has both impressed and astonished with remarks both on Estonian political life and the different international organizations of which Estonia is a member. Among other things she has managed to profile herself internationally as a champion of common defense in the European Union, and a staunch supporter of NATO's course towards raising the contributions to the alliance by its members.

In the Estonian debate, Kaljulaid has stood out as the defender of a renewed brand of Estonian conservatism, one that neither ignores the rapid developments in today's world nor compromises on the importance it assigns to the upholding of Estonian values and traditions, whatever they may be.

In the current political environment in Estonia, this can be seen as an important contribution to a political ideology that is increasingly threatened by extreme positions to the right as well as an increasingly dominant new breed of functionaries in the political center.

The current coalition of the Center Party, the Social Democrats, and the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), despite its one conservative member, has managed to shake up Estonia's politics. Dogmatic stances like the country's previous tax and budget policy are now in a state of flux again, with changes on the horizon that may eventually go far beyond the currently relatively tame manipulation of the system by Jüri Ratas' government.

As Postimees suggested in its Wednesday editorial, at a time the government seems to implement a lot of changes very quickly and without a broader debate in society, the role of the president is to remind everyone that such a debate is necessary, and that a government's points and plans need to be argued and well-founded. The president, in this instance, doesn't only have the role of signing or rejecting bills, but to ask the necessary questions and act as the state's conscience.

The president's self-confidence is a matter of national importance. As the paper points out, in a day and age where in the enormous din of the media the voter might not even be able to decide who they want to listen to, a clear voice of reason is essential.

According to Postimees, President Kersti Kaljulaid plans to speak up rather than focus solely on her ceremonial duties. Where most political camps seem to be operating on slogans rather than platforms, and where the local debate culture is reduced to little more than insults, the president suggests that not only the extreme ends of politics, but politics across the board needs to work out how to move away from divisive positions and move towards a more balanced way of running things.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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