TALLINN - The five parliamentary parties in search of a common presidential candidate reached a crucial compromise last week as to the timetable of future consultations and how the two merging parties will be represented. Meanwhile, People's Union head Villu Reiljan said President Arnold Ruutel wouldn't run during the parliamentary round of voting, the first official indication of the president's future.
"Ruutel's running in the Riigikogu [Estonia's parliament] is ruled out 'she's told me that himself," Reiljan, who is minister of environment, told reporters. According to Reiljan, Ruutel is expected to present the People's Union with his opinion of what to do if Parliament proves unable to elect a new head of state, which requires a two-thirds majority in one of three consecutive votes.
Ruutel was elected president in 2001 by a special electoral college after Parliament was unable to muster the two-thirds majority. The People's Union was instrumental in securing the victory. Ruutel, who turned 78 this month, was Estonia's last communist-era leader, and his presidency still sticks in the craw of many anti-communist politicians.
To prevent the same scenario from repeating, five parties have started negotiations with the aim of finding a joint candidate who would be able to garner the 68 votes this fall. In accordance to the May 17 agreement, the next rounds of talks will be held on June 28 and July 19, and the joint candidate is expected to be named by Aug. 3. After June 28, there should be four names left on the shortlist out (out of seven hopefuls now), and two names after July 19. The parties also agreed that Pro Patria Union and Res Publica would keep their separate representations at the talks, which was crucial considering that the Center Party had agreed that talks be suspended until after the two parties' merger. Still, the Center Party didn't agree to the merging party's two votes in the process of choosing the presidential candidate.
Taavi Veskimagi, Res Publica's chairman, said that all parties were set to go firmly ahead with the process and find a common candidate. He reminded that, together, the Res Publica and Pro Patria Union factions command 33 seats in the 101-seat Parliament, a force that is crucial in gathering the 68 votes necessary to elect the next president. The sixth parliamentary party, People's Union, wants to see Ruutel re-elected and is reportedly consolidating support for the incumbent in the hope that a new electoral college would give Ruutel a second term in office. For this reason, several politicians reacted in dismay at Reiljan's comments about Ruutel not taking part in the parliamentary round.
"Arnold Ruutel wouldn't get a two-thirds majority of votes in the Riigikogu, but this cannot serve as a reason to demean those who are working together to have the president elected in parliament," Pro Patria Union leader Tonis Lukas was quoted as saying. Secretary General of the Reform Party, Kristen Michal, said the situation had become significantly clearer after Reiljan's disclosure. "Now members of People's Union will no longer have to keep stealthily glancing at Kadriorg [presidential palace] without knowing whether and in what way to act. The hands of People's Union deputies in parliament are now free to support whatever candidate they want," Michal told the Baltic News Service. He expressed hope that the president would be elected by Parliament in August. "Since Ruutel won't be running, the People's Union deputies, too, can make their contribution so that an electoral college wouldn't be needed at all," he said.
Ain Seppik, chairman of the Center Party faction, didn't share the positions of Pro Patria Union and Reform Party, saying that the parliament and the electoral college were both constitutional bodies which were equally legitimate and respectable.
"A party that doesn't have the 21 votes necessary to nominate a candidate in Parliament does not have the possibility to nominate its candidate. It's inevitable that some of the parties would be counting on the electoral college 's the likelihood of getting 21 votes together there is bigger," he said. In Seppik's words, it will be crucial whether or not the five parties searching for a common candidate are able to reach consensus. "If a common candidate is found, the president will be elected in parliament and in that case he won't be Arnold Ruutel," he said.