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Estonia - Presidential Election

The estonian parliament did not succeed in electing the president of the republic in the three rounds of voting

The estonian parliament did not succeed in electing the president of the republic in the three rounds of voting

01/09/2006 - Results

As forecast the Riigikogu, the only chamber in Parliament, did not succeed in electing the President of the Republic. All of the work accomplished over the last few months and the negotiations between the six parties represented in Parliament to come to a consensus on the appointment of a single candidate for the Presidency and to allow the Riigikogu to elect Arnold Rüütel's successor ended in failure.

The first round of voting (28th August)

During the first round the Vice President of Parliament, Ene Ergma (Res), a 62 year-old astrophysicist and the only candidate running won all of the votes cast (65) but this was three votes short of the number that would have enabled her to become the first woman president of Estonia. The majority of two thirds (i.e. 68 of the 101 is required for a candidate to be declared elected during the vote in Parliament. However Ene Ergma is the first candidate since 1992 to win as many votes in the first round in the Riigikogu.

When the voting results were announced Ene Ergma said to the TV channel (which broadcast the presidential election live) to be both "very happy and very sad." Happy because all of the representatives of the parties that supported her kept their promise by voting for her (this election was also believed to be the first test of the "anti-Rüütel" coalition created by the Pro Patria Union, Res Republica, the Reform Party and the Social Democrat Party). Ene Ergma also said that she was very disappointed by the attitude of the deputies from the Centre Party and the People's Union who followed their leader's advice by abstaining from the voting.

In a radio programme on 27th August, the eve of the first round, Ene Ergma called on all Riigikogu representatives to take part in the election. "Dear Representatives, come to the hall! Vote against me if that is what is requested of you but come! In my opinion the most important thing is for Parliament to fulfil its constitutional function," she declared. "The members of the People's Union group decided, in line with the Constitution, to sit in on the session convened for the presidential election but it was agreed not to take part in the voting for a candidate. We believe the constitutionally established electoral assembly as the representative venue for the election of the President as long as direct universal suffrage has not been established," announced Jaanus Männik, chairman of the parliamentary group of the People's Union in the Riigikogu. "The iron hand with which Edgar Savisaar, chairman of the Centre Party, governs his troops makes it hard to think that there would be any defection within this party," maintained Vello Pettai, professor of political science at the University of Tartu. "Toomas Hendrik Ilves is simply unreliable and in our eyes Ene Ergma leans far too much to the right," declared Centre Party MP Evelyn Sepp on 28th August. "It is quite clear that our supporters along with those of the People's Union definitely support the President of the Republic in office. Hence we did not take part in the election in order to provide him with the best chance of being re-elected."

The act of requesting MPs not to vote and to privilege the electoral assembly to the detriment of Parliament is however believed contrary to the text and even the idea of the Constitution which places the Riigikogu as the main organ in the election of the President of the Republic. Sociologist Juhan Kivirähk has therefore stressed that it would have been better for Arnold Rüütel to stand before the Riigikogu and for the MPs from the Centre Party and the People's Union to take part in the vote. "It would have been perceived better by the people," he said believing that the two parties' behaviour is a relic of the mentality of the communist era.

The second and third round of voting (29th August)

On 29th August MPs who had put forward Ene Ergma for the Presidency the previous day did the same for Toomas Hendrik Ilves (SDE). Given the unshakeable line of conduct adopted by the Centre Party and the People's Union it would have taken a miracle for Toomas Hendrik, the only candidate in the second and third round to be elected by Parliament. "Since two parties are going to abstain from voting the probability of a President being elected by Parliament alone is quite low," said the candidate.

After the second round and before the votes were counted the chairman of the Commission of Constitutional Laws in the Riigikogu, Urmas Reinsalu (Res) lodged an oral and written complaint with the Electoral Commission of the Republic responsible for voting for the violation of the electoral procedure on the part of the representatives of the Centre Party and the People's Union in their abstention in the election. In his petition Urmas Reinsalu spoke of this behaviour in terms of "a violation of article 62 of the Constitution whereby MP's are not bound by any mandate. Pressure has been applied leading to a violation of the principle of the representative mandate." However the Commission did not support this petition saying that if article 62 of the Constitution enables the members of the Riigikogu to vote freely according to the representative mandate it also gave them the right to abstain. The Commission also stressed that it had no information enabling it to confirm that "some members of the Riigikogu had not acted in all conscience and honesty."

During the two rounds of voting 52 year-old Toomas Hendrik Ilves, MEP and former Foreign Minister won 64 of the 65 votes cast i.e. four less than the required majority (and one less than Ene Ergma the previous day) thereby leading to the failure of the appointment of the President of the Republic by Parliament.

"Arnold Rüütel already disrupted the presidential office that is supposed to be apolitical by becoming the guarantor of the agreement between the two centre left parties. It is a Pyrrhic victory for the two parties who refused to vote; this will be damaging to them in the upcoming general elections (that are to take part in March 2007). I am convinced that Estonian voters will not forget those who did not respect their constitutional duty," maintained Toomas Hendrik Ilves. "When a decision –to elect a President of the Republic – can be taken by two different bodies the situation is inevitably biased as we have seen," he added. "The use of Arnold Rüütel's name is perceived as being out of line with the obligation of being the President of all Estonians," stressed Andres Kasekamp, professor of political science at the University of Tartu.

The Riigikogu did not therefore succeed in electing the next President of the Republic and this was the result even though the political parties (including Arnold Rüütel himself) were unanimous in saying that this was their goal. "I am not happy to hear about what happened in Parliament. I hope that no other President of the Republic will be elected using this system. When at the beginning of the year I said that I hoped the President would be elected by Parliament I did hope that after constructive debate the parties would put forward several worthy candidates. But a situation in which there is only one candidate is not in line with the democratic ideal in the name of which we recovered our independence," insisted Arnold Rüütel.

Many political observers perceive in the Centre Party's position – the re-election of the outgoing President – a desire on the part of Edgar Savissar to have someone elected as Head of State who might be able to make his return to the post of Prime Minister easier in the wake of the upcoming general elections in March 2007. "Edgar Savisaar needs a President who can appoint a Prime Minister next March and he knows that Arnold Rüütel might be that man," declared Valdo Pettai. For his part Edgar Savisaar denied all accusations of fixing the elections. "These traps and speeches on democracy hide one basic thing: not to allow the electoral assembly to take the decision because it is supposed that Arnold Rüütel will be in an advantageous position," he stressed.

Toomas Varek, President of the Riigikogu, will now convene the 347 members of the electoral assembly (valimiskogu) for the 23rd September; they will meet in the Estonia concert hall. The inscription of candidates will take place between 19th and 21st September.

The electoral assembly rallies the 101 members of Parliament and the members of the representative assemblies of the 227 municipalities in Estonia (10 representatives for the capital Tallinn, 14 for Tartu, 2 for Pärnu, Narva, Kohtla-Järve, Viljandi, Rakvere, Kuresaare and Võru and 1 for the other 218 communities). This year it includes 347 people (of which 246 are local representatives), instead of 367 in 2001 and 374 in 1996. As the candidate that won the greatest number of votes in the third round Toomas Hendrik will be put forward as the Riigikogu's candidate. Any group that rallies at least 21 members of the electoral assembly also has the right to put a candidate forward. Hence with the support of the Centre Party and the People's Union the President of Republic in office, Arnold Rüütel will officially be able to enter the presidential race. Any candidate winning the simple majority of the votes is declared elected. If this majority is not achieved a second round is organised on the same day and the candidate winning the majority of the votes is declared elected.

"No party or group of parties has a true majority within the electoral assembly. All are at present fighting to bring the local authorities over to their side," stressed Sven Soiver, a political analyst for the TV channel TV3; "Arnold Rüütel's supporters have bought local leaders, some have changed party over the last month," maintained Toomas Hendrik Ilves unhesitatingly. If the members of the assembly do not manage to appoint the next President of Republic, a highly unlikely hypothesis however, the vote will again return to the 101 members of the Riigikogu who will then have to take emergency action. The election would take place in the 14 days after the announcement of the negative results of the second round of voting.

A revision of the Constitution is necessary

Since 1996 the year when this specific system to elect the Head of State was established no President of the Republic has been elected by Parliament (Arnold Rüütel was elected by the electoral college on 21st September 2001, with 186 votes during the second round of voting, likewise Lennart Meri on 20th September 1996 with 196 votes in the second round of voting).

Within the present context whereby two parties continued to refuse to take part in the vote in Parliament ensuring the failure of the first three rounds of the election many are now critical of the present method used to elect the President of the Republic and want changes to be made before the next deadline in five years time. According to all opinion polls many perceive a solution to the present problem in the election of the Head of State by direct universal suffrage, with the approval of the great majority of the population. Ene Ergma said that "she was now 100% in favour of the election of President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage." The debate on the introduction of such a system is not a new one. It dates back to the birth of the Constitution in 1992 and has not died away since then. Over the last fifteen years several proposals and draft laws that aimed to review the Fundamental Law have been delivered to Parliament but they have never met with success. The ruling coalition that unites Res Republica, the Reform Party and the People's Union (2003-2005) promised to submit a draft law to referendum on the same day as the European Elections (13th June 2004) that would have replaced the present system to elect the Head of State by direct universal suffrage. Due to differences in opinion with regard to the modality of the desired reform it was decided to postpone the referendum date in order for it to coincide with the recent local elections that took place on 16th October 2005, but then the project was abandoned altogether. The Reform Party wanted the modification of the mode of electing the President of the Republic to be accompanied by a reduction in the latter's powers; its other two partners refused to accept this; the People's Union refused the introduction of a destitution procedure against the President.

Without going as far as changing the system completely some believe that it is possible to improve the voting method in Parliament. With popular legitimacy the Head of State might easily come into conflict with Parliament which might destabilise the parliamentary regime. Hence political analyst Rein Toomla, professor at the University of Tartu, commented on the results of the first round of the election live and suggested that in the first round of the voting in order for the President to be elected in the Riigikogu the simple majority of votes cast be required and not two thirds. In order to force Parliament to assume its responsibilities in the presidential election procedure some have even suggested the dissolution of Parliament if there is a negative result in the same way as planned for in the vote on the budget. Others suggest linking direct universal suffrage and parliamentary suffrage as in the first presidential election that took place in Estonia in 1992. There are many possibilities but whatever modifications there are to be made a review of the Constitution is necessary.
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
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