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Estonia before presidential election: who will be the next president?

There is less than a month left before Estonia elects its next president. And even though in that country the president has limited powers, he is still a significant figure in local politics. So, whoever is elected the next president will have a big role in the country’s life in the next five years.

What can the president do in Estonia?

In Estonia, the president has mostly representative and juridical functions. He represents Estonia in the world by signing agreements and appointing diplomats. He can also appoint regular and mid-term parliamentary elections and can ban a bill if he considers it to be not good enough. He is also authorized to appoint the ministers, the presidents of the Supreme Court and Eesti Bank and the Justice Chancellor, to adopt laws if the parliament is unable to meet for some reason, to announce a military draft and discharge and a state of emergency. De jure he has limited powers but de facto he has quite a high status in his country.

Incumbent President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whose second term is due to expire in late Aug 2016, has already annoyed his people. Last year 61-year-old Ilves married his third wife, former employee of Latvia’s Interior Ministry Ieva Kupce. Before his election as Estonian president, he was an analyst for Radio Free Europe in Munich. He likes pop music of the 1960s-1970s and quite recently even appeared as DJ in a night club. He divorced his second wife when she began appearing in public with other men.

Ilves is anti-Russian but his anti-Russian lunges are not as impressive as the escapades of his Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts. “Allegorically speaking, Ilves is not a raving mad but just a harmless half-wit. Just try to compare his words with the words of his Lithuanian colleague Dalia Grybauskaite and you will see what I mean. This is why he is better known for his fooleries rather than for his anti-Russian hysterics. In fact, he is very sweet in his extravagance and pomposity and in his funny belief that ‘to look’ means ‘to be.’ He likes talking about things he has no idea about and messing up things he says he is good at. He loves music he knows nothing about, he wears clothes that do not suit him at all and he is always ready to teach people how to live. He is a funny guy,” says political writer Maxim Novoselsky.

Ready, steady...

In any case, Ilves will soon go into history. And who will come to replace him? The most probable candidates are high-ranking politician Siim Kallas, lawyer Juri Raidla, Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand, former Education Minister Jaak Aaviksoo, writer and diplomat Jaak Jõerüüt, professor of Tartu Uiversity Marju Lauristin, former Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, the leader of the opposition Center Party Edgar Savisaar.

Kallas was the first to start out for presidency. He is a very influential person in Estonia. In 2002-2003 he was Prime Minister and later EU Transport Commissioner. And he relies not only on Estonians but also on Russians. In his new book he explains why in 2014 he refused to be Prime Minister. “I opposed those who tried to score more points by setting Estonians against ethnic minorities. I told them that a conflict between Estonians and Estonia-based Russians would be a serious threat for our country as it may serve as a pretext for external interference into our national affairs. And this may also turn the Europeans against us as they are very sensitive to any anti-minority steps,” Kallas says.

His key rival will be Kaljurand, who may poll as many as 31% of the votes. So, the ruling Reform Party is facing a dilemma: to support Kallas (one of the party’s founders) or more popular Kaljurand. According to Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, even though the President is elected by the Parliament, much here depends on a candidate’s popularity.

Today, Kaljurand is facing criticism from the nationalists. According to the leader of EKRE Martin Helme, her key problem is that she is Russian. “I am not saying that it’s a bad thing that she is Russian, but I don’t think that a Russian can be Estonian president. The world already has a country ruled by a Russian president. According to our party’s ideology, Estonia is a national state, so, its leaders must reflect this idea. Of course, Kaljurand has proved that a person of another nationalist can integrate into our society perfectly well but we still believe that our president must be Estonian in both blood and spirit,” Helme says.

His words have stirred up active debates and Kaljurand (who has Estonian father and Russian mother) is now trying to prove that she has always been a patriot. And one of the proofs is her tough unyielding policy with respect to Russia.

Savisaar’s trump

The most intriguing question is if Savisaar will run for presidency or not? Many Estonians believe him to be able to improve the country’s economy. “Savisaar is the only politician who can stop the chaos caused by our government and parliament. Kallas and Kaljurand are parts of the ruling system, so, they will not be able or willing to change anything,” says Alexander Chaplygin, the chief editor of Stolitsa.ee.

Savisaar has not made it clear yet if he is going to run for presidency or not. In February he said that the Center Party is the only force that is able to stop economic decline and Russophobia in Estonia. Then he said that he will seek the Prime Minister’s office only as this is exactly what he needs for putting Estonia onto a new track.

Last autumn Savisaar was relieved of the post of Tallinn’s Mayor following charges of corruption. According to most experts, the key reason for this attack was his policy to improve relations with Russia. During the last congress of his party, where he was reelected as its leader, Savisaar said that Russia has already got used to the sanctions. “Their lifting would be a big relief for Estonia in terms of economics. Is Russia sad or worried about continuing sanctions? No, it is not, it is trying to create a new economic model. Russia is Europe - as Russian Empress Catherine the Great would say. So, I don’t think it is a good idea to turn Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine into a defensive wall,” Savisaar said.

Some time ago some sources rumored that Savisaar had agreed with Kallas that he would support him in exchange for some preferences. But in his last interview to Pealinn, he said that he cannot ignore the votes of 14% of the Estonians who see him as their next President. “So, why not to run for presidency if so many people want me to. The only official candidate so far Siim Kallas has admitted that I am a serious rival. After all, it is not hard to be better than Ilves,” Savisaar said with irony. He said that the Reform Party wants the President to be elected by the Parliament. “They are afraid that the President will have to be elected by an electoral college (this will happen if the Parliament fails to elect the President in three rounds). If this happens, the role of local governments will grow as municipalities want a president that will curb the government’s ‘road roller’ policy,” Savisaar said.

Let’s make the election nationwide!

But with the existing electoral system Savisaar has few chances to win. In the Parliament the Center Party has just 27 seats and will hardly be able to get enough votes. The mainstream in Estonia today is nationalism and Russophobia, so, Savisaar’s reconciliation platform has vague prospects. But should the President be elected by the people rather than the Parliament, Savisaar would have more hopes. No coincidence that some public figures have appeared with calls for the people’s higher role in the presidential election.

Chairman of the Ethnic Minorities Chamber of Estonia Rafik Grigoryan says that if Estonia seeks to be a democratic country, its president must be elected by demos (people) rather than their representatives. “When a president is elected by politicians rather than people, he or she is not free and is forced to do what he electors will tell him to do. As one businessman said, ‘In Estonia there is no head of state, there is president of parliament.’ What we need is an independent leader, elected by his people and acting on their behalf. Until now the Estonian president has been above his people. Only a president elected by the people can understand their pains and concerns and care for their future. Today the Estonians have almost no influence on their Cabinet and Parliament. They have no power to dismiss an MP or to change a minister. But if they are allowed to elect their president, he will become their mouthpiece. And as we know, the voice of the people is the voice of God,” Grigoryan says.

And this is what a representative of the Põhja-Tallinn community Alexander Kukk says: “A president must be elected by people. This will give them hope that the office will go to the best candidate. This hope will unite the Estonians as this is a chance for them to have a president they want.” Actor Sergey Cherkasov is of the same opinion: “I advocate nationwide ballot. Today our parliament neglects our interests. When I say nationwide I meant that the ballot must involve all people living in Estonia. Non-citizens also must have the right to vote.” Indeed, there still are as many as 80,000 “niggers” in Estonia and Savisaar is quite popular among them. No surprise that he has signed under the petition asking the European parliament to guarantee the rights of non-citizens in Estonia.

According to member of the Estonian Parliament’s National Defense Committee, political scientist Oudekki Loone, a president must be elected by the people. “And his key task is to protect the constitutional rights of his citizens and to prevent the government and the parliament from violating them,” Loone says.

For example, after the “bronze night” (in 2007 - EADaily), the Estonian parliament adopted a law making rallies almost impossible. The president dismissed the law and said that all Estonian citizens must have the right to express themselves. As a result, the MPs were forced to review the law and now it has become even easier to organize a rally in the country. It’s the President’s duty to protect his people from other politicians. Consequently, it is for the people to elect him.

If Savisaar decides to run, we will witness his tough fight with Kallas and Kaljurand. And this implies new twists and turns.

Vyacheslav Samoylov

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