TALLINN - Estonia faces the prospect of electing its first female head of state after MP Ene Ergma was selected as one of two candidates in the presidential race slated to take place at the end of August. Toomas Hendrik Illves, the widely respected representative to the European Parliament and former foreign minister, was selected as the other candidate on a shortlist prepared by a roundtable of the nation's major parties.
Last week the parties announced that the list of four names had been culled to two, as businessman Jaan Manitski and Tartu University Rector Jaak Aaviksoo were dropped.
Still, political analysts believe neither candidate will become president and that incumbent Arnold Ruutel will likely gain a second term through the electoral college after Parliament fails to muster the required number of votes for either candidate. The president has already announced that he would not participate in the parliamentary round of elections.
Indeed, the Center Party, one of the groups negotiating the shortlist for a parliamentary ballot, has begun separate negotiations with Ruutel's People's Union, the only party that has openly declared its support for Ruutel. Both the Centrists and the People's Union have enough seats to prevent either Ergma or Ilves from getting elected in the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament).
Be that as it may, the two remaining candidates are busy putting together programs and speeches to win the hearts and minds of MPs. Ergma, the 62-year old deputy chair of Parliament, told The Baltic Times that her key concerns as president would be Estonia's looming demographic challenges.
"At present Estonia enjoys strong economic growth, but today we must think about our future," Ergma said.
"How can Estonia's economy be sustainable with the Estonian demographic situation of an ageing population and low birth rate? Although several measures aimed at increasing the birth rate have been proposed in Estonia the results remain rather marginal," she said.
Ergma said urgent action was needed to reduce the number of children who drop out of schools without completing even their primary education. She also expressed concern for the growing problem of alcoholism amongst Estonia's youth, and said a tougher policy on alcohol and public health was required to curb the number of deaths due to drunk driving.
Ergma is a decorated physicist who served at the Soviet Institute of Space Research in the 1980s after graduating from Tartu University and Moscow State University cum laude. When she switched to politics as a member of the Res Publica party, Ergma said it was "to defend science."
She said she would continue to advocate for the improvement of the education system if elected president.
"Natural and technical sciences remain rather unpopular with young people in Estonia, but more and more people are required in this field to build up a society based on high-tech.
"I am concerned about the aging teaching staff, since the teacher's profession, particularly in science, is not popular with the young. This is where the state has to step in and make considerable contributions," she said.
Ergma said her scientific background would assist her with "analytical capacity, the ability to work with huge flows of information, the ability to listen and to involve experts in decision-making processes".
She said "time will show" whether Estonia was ready to have a female leader.
For his part, Ilves has said that if elected president he would work toward fostering better cooperation between the new EU members. "Personally, it seems to me that there is no common vision among the new EU members right now on how to go ahead, and there's a clear feeling that the new members ought to do something together," Ilves told public ETV television last week.
Ilves said that even though the Estonian presidency doesn't have far-ranging powers, he has discovered in both his articles in the Estonian media and activity in the European Parliament that the ability to convince people is no less important.
"That is also the role that I've been playing in the European Parliament, to rally these forces, to cope a little better within the European Union, so that we weren't so fragmented there. That's where the ability to convince people counts," Ilves, who is vice chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said.
Ilves said he is prepared to stay on as a candidate in the electoral college vote should the parliamentary vote on the president produce no result. If Parliament chooses someone else as head of state, it will be good too because it means that a compromise has been found and the Constitution abided by, said Ilves.
"If it's going to be electoral college, Arnold Ruutel will be the main rival. If it's going to be in parliament, I don't know who the main rival will be," Ilves said, adding that hopefully accord will be reached in parliament.
Parliament will meet on August 28 to vote on the candidates. If it is unable to decide on a leader after two rounds, the decision will fall to an electoral college.