The European Elections Monitor

Open panel Open panel
The European Elections Monitor
Estonia - Presidential Election

Presidential election in Estonia,28th August 2006

Presidential election in Estonia,28th August 2006

24/07/2006 - Analysis

On 28th and 29th August next the 101 members of the Riigikogu, the only Chamber of Parliament, are being called on to elect the successor to Arnold Rüütel as President of the Republic. Although the position of Head of State is mostly honorary it is nevertheless highly symbolic. In addition to this the impending general elections (MPs are to stand again in March 2007) make the observation of the discussions between the country's various political parties during the presidential election all the more interesting even though the extreme instability of the Estonian political arena makes it difficult to anticipate how allegiances will develop.

The President of the Republic: how he is elected and his duties

In Estonia the President of the Republic is elected by indirect suffrage. Any citizen aged 40 and over may stand in the election for the supreme office. To take part in the election all candidates must however receive the support of at least one fifth of the 101 members of the Riigikogu, ie a minimum of 21. The election then takes place within Parliament where only the 101 MPs are allowed to vote. During the first round of the voting the candidate winning at least two thirds of the vote (ie 68) is declared elected. If no candidate manages to win this number of votes a second round is organised, then a third, if the second does not enable the election of the President of the Republic. If after these three rounds of voting no candidate succeeds in winning a sufficient number of votes in order to take on the supreme office the Riigikogu's Speaker then convenes a parliamentary assembly, responsible for electing the future President of the Republic.

The parliamentary assembly rallies the 101 members of Parliament plus the representatives of the local councils whose number can vary due to the administrative/territorial reforms. In 1996, the parliamentary assembly comprised 374 members (of which 273 were local representatives) and in 2001, 376 (266 of whom were local representatives). This year there are 347 people (of whom 246 are local representatives). New candidates can stand before the parliamentary assembly. Any candidate winning the simple majority of votes is declared elected. If this majority is not reached a second round of voting is organised on the same day and the candidate winning the majority of votes is declared elected.

On 21st September 2001, the present President of the Republic, Arnold Rüütel, was elected by the parliamentary assembly winning 186 votes during the second round of the election. Five years previously on 20th September 1996 Lennart Meri was also appointed by the parliamentary assembly during a second round of voting (196 votes).

The President of the Republic, who is elected for five years, cannot stand for more than two consecutive terms in office. He is head of the armed forces and represents Estonia internationally; he concludes treaties with foreign States, appoints and receives diplomatic representatives. The President of the Republic also has the right to set down amendments to the Constitution.

On 22nd June last Arnold Rüütel set midday, 28th August as the time and date for the first round of the presidential election in Parliament. The candidates will be enrolled on 24th and 26th August. If the Riigikogu does not succeed in electing the future President of the Republic, Toomas Varek, the Parliamentary Speaker will convene the 347 members of the parliamentary assembly on 23rd September (enrolment of candidates will take place between 19th and 21st September). It is vital for Arnold Rüütel's successor to be elected before 9th October.

In Estonia the election of the President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage is indeed a very difficult issue. It has been planned for on several occasions over the last few years and is approved by a wide majority of the population according to all polls but the obligatory reform of the Constitution to modify the means of electing the Head of States has been postponed many times. The election of the President of the Republic by the people does however feature in the programme of the previous government coalition that comprised Res Publica (Res), the Reform Party (ER) and the People's Union (KE). Res Publica wanted to submit the question to referendum on the same day as the last local elections which took place on 16th October 2005. A disagreement on the means of making the necessary amendments to the Constitution to enable this measure was again the reason for the project's failure. The Reform Party did in fact say that the modification of the means of electing the Head of State should go hand in hand with a reduction in his powers, a proposal which the other political parties opposed.

The Electoral Campaign

In March last five of the six political parties in the Riigikogu -Res Publica, the Centre Party (EK), the Reform Party, the Pro-Patria Union (I) and the Social Democrat Party (SDE), the People's Union decided not to take part in the selection of candidates – appointed twelve potential candidates for the Parliament's election of the President of the Republic. On 11th May five of the candidates (the mayor of Tartu, Laine Janes (ER), MPs Liina Tonisson (independent) and Peeter Tulviste (I), Eesti Telekom Chairman Jaan Mannik (I) and Parliamentary Speaker, Toomas Varek (EK) were eliminated from the race. On 28th June the chairman of Tartu's town council, Aadu Must (EK), Population Minister, Paul-Eerik Rummo (ER) and MP Enn Eesma (EK) were also rejected. Finally on 19th July MPs eliminated Jaak Aavikso, former Education Minister and Rector of the University of Tartu, the country's second biggest town and intellectual capital of Estonia along with businessman and former Foreign Minister Jan Mannitski from the Presidential race.

There now remain two candidates. These are Toomas Hendrik Ilves (SDE), MEP and former Foreign Minister and Deputy Parliamentary Speaker, Ene Ergma (Res). The parties in the Riigikogu will meet again on 3rd August to announce the name of the candidate they have agreed upon.

The result of the election in Parliament seems to lie in the hands of the Centre Party whose votes are vital in gaining a majority. The party comprises 20 MPs, Res Publica 25, the Reform Party 10, the People's Union 13, Pro-Patria Union 7 and the Social Democrat Party 6. Nine MP's are independent of any political affiliation. Without the Centre Party the four parties in the Riigikogu participating in the selection of the candidate only comprise 66 votes ie two less than the required number in order to enable the election of their candidate. Taavi Veskimagi, co-chairman of the Res Publica-Pro-Patria Union alliance believes however that the election of the future President of the Republic by Parliament is not impossible saying, without naming Toomas Hendrik Ilves, that in a secret ballot a candidate representing true European values might win the required number of votes. This opinion is not shared however by political analysts who agree in saying that a small number of votes might be lacking from Toomas Hendrik Ilves' count for him to be elected by Parliament to the supreme office on 28th and 29th August next.

On 18th May the present President of the Republic Arnold Rüütel announced that he would stand before the parliamentary assembly if Parliament's vote failed. "Arnold Rüütel knows that he would not win a majority in Parliament. But since he has the support of the country's rural zones it is logical for him to wait for the parliamentary assembly to be convened", says Rainer Kattel, professor of political science at the Technical University in Tallinn, the capital. Arnold Rüütel's candidature was approved by all 297 members of his party during a party congress on 19th June. The President said he did not want to take part in pre-electoral debates, which was the source of criticism on the part of the entire political community as well as journalists and political analysts. "Candidates must take part in pre-electoral debates to increase citizens' confidence in their future President and to develop democracy in our country", declared former Foreign Minister Jan Mannitski. "Arnold Rüütel is demonstrating a lack of respect with regard to the Constitution", stressed Toomas Hendrik Ilves in an article published on 8th June in the daily Eesti Paevaleht. Many political observers believe that the present President is afraid of having to confront as good an orator as Toomas Hendrik Ivles in the TV studios.

On 6th July Villu Reiljan, leader of the People's Union, a member of the present government coalition led by Andrus Ansip (ER) along with the Reform Party and the Centre Party, suggested that the latter form an alliance with his party in view of the upcoming presidential election as well as the general elections planned for March next year. On 17th July the Centre Party said that it would start negotiations with the People's Party even though the party had said (via its Secretary General, Kadri Must) that it would continue to work with the Reform Party, Res Publica, the Social Democrat Party and the Pro-Patria Union in the quest for a consensus on the candidate to be elected by Parliament. A short while ago the Centre Party's leader recalled that the two political parties, his and the People's Union had joined together in the last presidential election in 2001 and said "we shall do all we can for the People's Union and the Centre party to create a new coalition. Together we are strong". Some political analysts also believe that Edgar Savisaar, who has never said that he would not one day stand in the presidential election, will give preference to Arnold Rüütel's candidature, believing that it would certainly be easier to take over from him in five years than to face Toomas Hendrik Ilves who would be seeking re-election.

Arnold Rüütel and former Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves are therefore the two most serious candidates standing for the supreme office. Both men have very different characters. Aged 78 the outgoing President was also president of the Supreme Estonian Soviet during the USSR era before taking on the fight in the 1980's for the country's return to independence. MP for the People's Union between 1995 and 2001 then Deputy Speaker in Parliament from 1995 to 1997, Arnold Rüütel, who only speaks Estonian and Russian, is especially liked by Russian speaking voters: 59% of them have said they would like him to be r e-elected as Head of State, versus 20% of Estonians in a poll by Faktum & Ariko mid-June. Arnold Rüütel is also liked by older voters, the least educated and those living in the country's rural zones. In a Turu-uuringute AS poll in May with regard to his results seven Estonians in ten said they were positive (71%, versus 21% who said the contrary). According to all political analysts the present president, who is not really interested in international affairs, did however play a major role in Estonia's integration into NATO on 29th March 2004 and the EU on May 1st in the same year.

52 year-old Toomas Hendrik Ilves, at present an MEP, was born in Sweden and spent most of his life in the USA where his parents were exiled to escape Estonia's occupation by Soviet troops in 1940. He has sound international experience. His adversaries emphasise his past criticising him for a so-called lack of knowledge of Estonia. "Toomas Hendrik Ilves does not know Estonia or the Estonians", declared the leader of the People's Union, Villu Reiljan. In the letter he wrote to Edgar Savisaar suggesting an electoral alliance on the occasion of the presidential election, Mr Reiljan did not hesitate in maintaining that "Estonians want a Head of State who has shared difficult times with them, who understands their problems and who is able to rally the various communities living in the country. They do not want the tenant of the Kadriorg – the President's residence – to be accused of corruption or to be in the pay of foreign countries". The Social Democrat Party candidate enjoys the support of half of the Estonians (50%) but only 8% of the Russian speaking voters (Faktum & Ariko poll, June 2006). According to this poll if they were to vote on the two men 36% of Estonians would vote for Toomas Hendrik Ilves, versus 33% for Arnold Rüütel.

Reminder of the Presidential Election Results on 21st September 2001

Source : Embassy of Estonia in Paris
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Rodolphe Laffranque
Other stages