OVER THE BRIDGE: Most Estonians believe that President Ruutel, who is nearly 80, has reached the end of his political career.
TALLINN - The presidential jockeying is reaching full stride in Estonia. According to polls, most residents would like to see Social Democrat and European Parliament member Toomas Hendrik Ilves as the next head of state. At the same time, the third most favored choice is a person whose name isn't even on any party list 's the ubiquitious leader of the Center Party, Edgar Savisaar.
Meanwhile the incumbent, Arnold Ruutel, the second most popular choice, has yet to announce whether he will run for a second term. His candidacy has only been put forward by the People's Union, while right-wing parties and the Social Democrats are desperate to grant Estonia a new president.
The People's Union believes Ruutel still has until the end of summer to decide. Lea Kiivit, secretary general of the People's Union, told Eesti Paevaleht that it was unfathomable why Ruutel, who turns 78 next month, should be under pressure to make up his mind.
"People with better political memory know that Lennart Meri informed the public in 1996 about his decision to run for the second term only in mid-August," she said.
Ruutel did, however, provide some clarity last week when he hinted that he had no intention of running in the parliamentary round. And if lawmakers prove unable to elect a president, there will be another round via an electoral college. Ruutel said he had not yet decided whether he would enter the race at that point.
At the same time, the president, speaking to students at Tartu University's Narva College, pointed to his age as one reservation. "I have lived quite a few years. It is nice when representatives of the younger generation are nominated and have the chance to be elected [in Parliament]," Ruutel said.
The favorite candidate, Ilves, argued that there was no sense in holding a debate if a candidate's decision to participate was not clear. He said parties should think about Estonia's image rather than try to outwit each other.
"Since, at the end of local government elections, the head of People's Union Villu Reiljan said they had the necessary electoral votes, then their aim is probably to torpedo the elections in Parliament," said Ilves.
In accordance with the Constitution, the president of the Republic shall be elected by Parliament, but if the legislature fails to grant two-thirds of the votes (i.e., 68 votes) for one candidate, the chairman of the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament) must convene an electoral body - comprised of members of the Riigikogu and representatives of the local government councils - to elect the president within one month. This is precisely how Ruutel, an outsider in 2001, came to power. And top Estonian politicians do not want history to repeat itself.
Savisaar, who is minister of economy and communications, has so far not announced whether he will run in the presidential elections. "When Lennart Meri was asked whether he would run for a second term, he said he would reply to the question 24 hours before the elections, and no sooner," Savisaar told the daily Postimees.Still, if Ruutel should decide not to put forth his candidacy, support for Savisaar would likely rise.A poll carried out by the daily Eesti Paevaleht shows that Savisaar would receive 14 percent and Ilves 6 percent of the pro-Ruutel vote. According to the same poll, 35 percent of respondents would back Ilves, 24 percent Ruutel and 11 percent Savisaar."I don't know what happens if Ruutel should decide to step down," Savisaar confessed to Eesti Paevaleht. "But I know what happens if we both run at the same time. In this case, our votes will disperse mutually, and a third candidate would cut through the two of us nicely 's just like a knife through butter. In this sense, running at the same time is neither useful for me, nor him."Estonians support Ilves for his language and communication skills, which would enable him to better represent Estonia in the international spotlight. Savisaar, however, believes these qualities are not important for a future president.In his words, the main tasks of the president are "to maintain the nation's confidence, state power and the president's institution. I have seen one president whose support was very strong all over the world. It was Mikhail Gorbachev, who was friends with Bush, Chirac and other heads of nations, but who, at the same time, drop by drop, lost the credit of his country until he was left without any faith." "Then he became King Lear, who was walking on an empty beach with no one to rely on. For this reason, I do not take the argument that we need a president for the outside world seriously," Savisaar said.The main difference between Ilves and Savisaar is their approach to Estonia's relationship with Russia. Savisaar has been accused several times for working on behalf of Russian interests, while Ilves has sometimes recklessly suggested ignoring Russia's demands.