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Estonia - Presidential Election

Toomas Hendrik Ilves (social democrat party, sde) was elected president of the republic of estonia by the electoral college in the first round of the election on 23rd september

Toomas Hendrik Ilves (social democrat party, sde) was elected president of the republic of estonia by the electoral college in the first round of the election on 23rd september

25/09/2006 - D+30

Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Social Democrat Party, SDE) was elected President of the Republic of Estonia by the Electoral College in the first round of the election on 23rd September. The MEP won 173 of the 345 votes versus 162 for the outgoing Head of State Arnold Rüütel. Eight members of the Electoral College placed a blank ballot paper in the ballot box and one vote was declared invalid. Since the municipal councils of Lihula and Vihula were unable to appoint their representatives, the number of Grand Electors totalled 345 instead of the originally planned 347.

"A knife-edge" victory

Again the concert hall Estonia bore witness to a major event in the country's democratic history. After being the birthplace of the first Constitution in 1919 and the seat of the first Parliament, on 23rd September it received the electoral assembly of the President of the Republic for the third consecutive time since 1996.

Not far from where the vote was taking place thousands of supporters of both candidates had rallied to take up the Baltic tradition whereby popular singing goes hand in hand with any major event. Toomas Hendrik Ilves's supporters qualified as "the heirs of the singing revolution of the 1980's" were more modern offering a rock concert in the car park just thirty metres from the hall and in the adjacent streets. Outgoing President, Arnold Rüütel's supporters organised a concert of folk music. "Even in the 1930's the Estonians came out into the streets to sing in a sign of protest", recalls Andres Kasekamp, professor of political science at the University of Tartu.

Whilst outside the singing was in full swing a deep silence reigned in the concert hall as one of the seven members of the Republic's Electoral Commission counted the voting slips out loud. At the 174th vote in favour of Toomas Hendrik Ilves applause rang out to greet the election of the third President of the Republic of Estonia since the restoration of independence in 1991.

Hence the danger of the failure of the presidential election was avoided; this might have happened if, as some had suggested, between twenty and thirty Grand Electors had placed blank ballot papers in the ballot box. The Riigikogu, the only Chamber of Parliament would then have again had the responsibility of electing the Head of State within the two weeks following the announcement of the negative results. The Baltic Republic narrowly missed a constitutional crisis. Centre Party Vice-President, Ain Seppik, although a Arnold Rüütel supporter, said that he was happy "both as a democrat and jurist" that Estonia had a legitimately elected President.

Until the eve of the vote nobody could say which of the two candidates had the greater chance of winning since the number of their respective supporters amongst the members of the Electoral College was perfectly equal. "It is surprising that Toomas Hendrik Ilves was elected in the first round. The wind turned in his favour in the last week but nobody could be certain that we would avoid a second round of voting", stressed Andres Kasekamp. "Arnold Rüütel's supporters seemed to have succumbed to despair this week ... going as far as to suggest that Toomas Hendrik Ilves's supporters might be the source of trouble in the streets. Edgar Savisaar (leader of the Centre Party EK) tried to create tension, thereby revealing his concern", added the analyst.

The Social Democrat Party candidate's victory was desired by most Estonians. Indeed in all polls Toomas Hendrik Ilves seemed to be the population's favourite. A survey undertaken by Faktum and Ariko showed that 50% of those interviewed favoured his election versus 29% who said they preferred Arnold Rüütel. The outgoing President is particularly liked by the Russian speaking population, Estonians living in rural areas and those with low incomes whilst his adversary has the support of the young and more qualified Estonians. When interviewed about this Prime Minister Andrus Ansip (Reform Party, ER), said that "the majority support of Estonians to Toomas Hendrik Ilves is vital since 90% of the Grand Electors are Estonians". This victory therefore means true popular success for Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Arnold Rüütel, the unfortunate loser congratulated the new President offering him a bunch of blue and white flowers, Estonia's colours. However members of the People's Union (KE) and the Centre Party, the two parties supporting the outgoing President refrained from copying him. "I am not at all happy with this result because as I said on several occasions I do not trust this person at all (Toomas Hendrik Ilves), and for good reason", declared the People's Union leader, Villu Reiljan. He also encouraged Toomas Hendrik Ilves to fulfil one of his campaign promises as a priority and that is to bring unity back to the population. In his eyes "the campaign has made a deep split in society. The joy today reminds me of when Res Republica won", stressed Centre Party leader, Edgar Savisaar, who added, "Let God protect us from things happening with Toomas Hendrik Ilves as they did with Res Publica".

Just after the announcement of the results Toomas Hendrik Ilves spoke to the Electoral College. He thanked those who had supported him as well as the Grand Electors whose decision "reflected the position of most of the Estonian people". Toomas Hendrik Ilves did not forget to speak to the outgoing President: "I hold the greatest respect for Arnold Rüütel for the work he has accomplished over the last five years. Our debates over the last few days were rich and dignified. We were able to rise beyond personal accusations and to think of what is useful for Estonia". In addition to this he seemed to want to establish calm after the battle. "The campaign has now finished. We must move forwards. It is time to calm the tension and to forgive all the bad things that have been said", declared the new President. During the press conference he gave afterwards Toomas Hendrik Ilves confided, "I believe that it is the President's obligation at least to be generous and quoting Marcus Aurelius – the best vengeance is not to do as they would have done". This remark was not to the taste of his adversaries. "Starting with such small insults and quoting Marcus Aurelius "I shall not do as they would have done", is not a good tone to set", stressed Ain Seppik.

The Portrait of a Man who "has turned to the West"

52 year-old Toomas Hendrik Ilves was born in Sweden and spent part of his life on the east coast of the USA (New Jersey) where his parents were exiled to escape Estonia's occupation by Soviet troops in 1940. He is a trained jurist and a graduate of psychology from the University of Columbia (New York City) and the University of Pennsylvania. He also lived in Munich between 1988 and 1993 where he led the Estonian division of Radio Free Europe. In 1993 he gave up his American nationality before becoming Estonia's Ambassador in the US, Mexico and Canada for several years. In December 1996, he became Foreign Minister, a position he occupied until September 1998. He was then elected chairman of the Popular Party. He was again the head of diplomacy after the general elections in March 1999 until 2002. Between 2001 and 2002 he led the Popular Party of Moderates, a movement he left after its defeat in the municipal elections on 20th October 2002 (the party then adopted the name of the Social Democrat Party). In 2003, Toomas Hendrik Ilves became an MEP, after the first European elections in which his country took part on 13th June 2004 and from which the Social Democrat Party emerged victorious (36.79% of the vote). He took over the position of Vice-President of the Foreign Affairs Commission. The new President will be replaced in Strasbourg by Katrin Saks (SDE).

Toomas Hendrik Ilves has sound international experience speaking Latvian, English, German and Spanish fluently. His adversaries, who have nicknamed him the "American with a dickie-bow", used his past to accuse him of a so-called lack of knowledge about Estonia. "Toomas Hendrink Ilves does not know Estonia and the Estonians do not know Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The Estonians want a Head of State who has shared difficult moments with them, who understands their problems and who is able to bring together the various communities living in the country. They do not want the person living in the Kadriorg –where the President of the Republic lives – being accused of corruption and of being in the pay of foreign countries", Villu Reiljan, the People's Union (KE) leader declared unhesitatingly last July.

During the press conference after his election Toomas Hendrik Ilves declared that he wanted Estonia to be "more at the heart of Europe". "Estonia must be part of those driving ideas in Europe", he maintained. In August last when interviewed by an Estonian newspaper Toomas Hendrik Ilves said that if he was elected head of State he would work for greater co-operation between the "new members" of the EU. "It is the role I played in the European Parliament, rallying fragmented forces in order to work better together", he said. "The President of the Republic must be above the parties, somebody who keeps his word and who is a man of action dealing with all political parties in the same manner", he concluded by saying "the role of the President is to make a long term intellectual commitment and not to worry about winning the next elections. The President has to think for himself, and encourage others to act and harmonise their vision of the world".

"Toomas Hendrik Ilves represents Western Europe. People want more than Arnold Rüütel was able to offer. This presidential election was a moment for a generation clash, between those who were oriented towards the past and those who are looking to the future", said Vello Pettai, political analyst at the University of Tartu. "Toomas Hendrik Ilves is seen as someone able to provide transparency and honesty to a country which needs it. He has not been scarred by any corruption scandal or affair", maintained Andres Kasekamp.

A Unanimously Criticised Election Method

The events that have occurred during this presidential elections have again brought to the fore the debate on the way the Head of State is elected. There has never been a President 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). This year the People's Union and the Centre Party refused to take part in the election in Parliament so that the first three rounds of voting were bound to fail. Many criticised the system employed to elect the President and said they wanted to see it modified before the next date in 2011. But over the last fifteen years several proposals and draft laws to revise the Fundamental Law have been put forward in Parliament, all in vain.

The two candidates in the elections before the Electoral College said they want to see the system reformed. "Involving the Estonians in the decision would help to reduce the distance that exists between the population and the political classes", said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, adding that he would fight for the introduction of a system of election by direct universal suffrage. "The President of the Republic must be elected either by Parliament or by an Electoral College but not by both as is the case at present. It allows too much space for political manœuvres. I hope the President will never be elected in this way again in Estonia", maintained Arnold Rüütel. All of the polls bear witness that the Estonians are mostly in favour of electing their President by direct universal suffrage. We should note that the way in which this last presidential election took place has marked the population, fuelling their distrust of the presidential position itself according to a poll undertaken by Faktum and Ariko. Three quarters of those interviewed (72%) believe that the activities and the behaviour of the Centre Party and the People's Union over the last few weeks have been unjustifiable. Whatever changes are to be made it appears that there should be a review of the Constitution in the near future.

On 23rd September Toomas Hendrik Ilves became the youngest elected European Head of State, the eldest being Giorgio Napolitano (81), elected this year on 10th May in Italy. The new President will be sworn in on 9th October. In November he will receive George W Bush for the first visit by an American President to this country. Now the three Baltic States are led by Presidents who are former emigrants and who returned to their own country: Toomas Hendrik Ilves in Estonia, Valdas Adamkus (who lived in the US for more than 50 years) in Lithuania and Vike Vaira-Freiberga (who lived in Germany, Morocco and Canada) in neighbouring Latvia.

Finally with the upcoming general elections in view next year Rein Toomla, political analyst from the University of Tartu believes it particularly interesting that Mr Ilves has been elected as President since as he stresses himself "the rightwing has elected a leftwing president".

Result of the Presidential Election on 23rd September in Estonia

Source Electoral Commission of the Estonian Republic
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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