• 2006-03-08


Emotions are running high in Estonia, and last week they finally spilled over. The country will hold a presidential election this year, and politicians are up in arms over who should be the next head of state. The incumbent, Arnold Ruutel, can submit his candidacy for a second term, but a group of MPs, mainly in the opposition, are loathe to see it happen. Tonis Palts, former mayor of Tallinn, is one of them. Writing on his personal Web site, Palts castigated the president. "I have asked from my former colleagues, politicians, what good Arnold Ruutel has done for Estonia.

Despite all my efforts I can only quote one good deed 's the president was not against joining the European Union. That's all. This is as good as saying that [current Prime Minister Andrus] Ansip is a good prime minister because he's not going to send Estonians to Siberia," he said.

And Palts, a member of the center-right Res Publica party, didn't stop there. He said that 60 percent of those in favor of Ruutel serving a second term are fools. But, he added, Estonians shouldn't grieve over this: "Incidentally, there's no need to take it to heart. The Finns are a happier nation by only 10 percent."

Ouch. While there is no reason that the campaign will become even nastier, such commentary is, in a way, symptomatic of the choice Estonia faces. The last presidential election (in Estonia the head of state is elected by Parliament) went into overtime and left a bitter taste in many mouths. How could the Baltics' most progressive nation elect its last Soviet-era ruler as head of state? Lithuania had Valdas Adamkus and Latvia had Vaira Vike-Freiberga, yet Estonian politicians elected a life-long communist. As Estonia's first post-Soviet president, Lennart Meri, warned at the time: "Based on the outcome, the international community will wonder whether Estonia is maintaining the democratic course of a European country, or if it is making a stupid communist U-turn."

President Ruutel, 77, has kept mum on whether he will run again, though he has hinted that there comes a time when it is necessary to entrust power to a younger generation. Without passing judgment on Mr. Ruutel for his performance as president, he should refrain from running again. An octogenarian president cannot serve Estonia 's home of ideas and innovation 's the way the country needs. As the president suggested himself, there comes a time to let the younger crowd take over. Indeed, if Estonia is to undergo another growth spurt and, as Prime Minister Ansip recently said, become one of Europe's top five prosperous nations, then the country would be wise to choose a young, energetic leader.

But are politicians capable of agreeing on one candidate? Last time around they couldn't. This year it appears the right-wing forces, having mulled over the mistakes of 2001, are determined to set aside differences and come up with one individual. The People's Union, the center-left party Ruutel once belonged to, has already voiced support for a second term, while the Center Party is likely to support him as well since the other political groups will not bother entertaining the concept of a Center Party president (which could only be Edgar Savisaar). That leaves the Reformists, Res Publica, Pro Patria Union, the Social Democrats and several other MPs to give Estonia a young president. Which is to say there's another reason why presidents should be elected directly by the people.