TALLINN - A tricky set of circumstances delivered Arnold Ruutel into the president's palace five years ago, and now, judging by statements coming from Kadriorg and its supporters, the president is holding out hope for a repeat of the scenario that will secure him another term in office.
After months of speculation, Ruutel announced on June 7 that he would not stand for the presidency during the parliamentary round of voting 's only during the electoral round that, in accordance to the Constitution, takes place if lawmakers prove unable to elect a new head of state. This is exactly what happened after Lennart Meri stepped down in 2001, and exactly what Ruutel and his loyal supporters from the People's Union are hoping for this fall.
Political analysts believe Ruutel has selected a perfect back-door method to stay in office. The former communist head of the Estonian S.S.R., Ruutel is a man with as many political detractors as friends. For younger, progressive-minded Estonians, Ruutel represents an outdated style and mentality that would be best laid to rest once and for all. Why should a country that prides itself in innovation and technology have a 78-year-old former communist president, they ask. If it were up to a majority of MPs, Ruutel would not serve a second term. But the problem is, in order for the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament) to elect the president, a candidate needs 66 votes. If they fail after three attempts, then the task of choosing a new head of state falls upon the so-called electoral college.
The electoral college is made up of representatives from local governments and councils across the country, drawing on grass-roots agricultural constituents who tend to support the People's Union, Estonia's agrarian party. Should this year's ballot go down the same path, Ruutel has a very good chance of remaining president, political scientists believe.
In the words of Tallinn Technical University's political analyst, Professor Rainer Kattel, "Clearly, he realizes that he wouldn't get votes together in the parliament. The right-wing parties will not go along with his candidacy. But he has more support in the countryside, so it is logical he could win that way."
The problem is that Parliament is still fragmented, though three parties have agreed to throw their support behind MEP Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and a fourth, Res Publica, has expressed a willingness to consider the candidacy. Still, even this is not enough, which would mean that the swing votes are with the Center Party. Kattel said it would take a coalition of right-wing and center parties to make up two-thirds of Parliament 's a near-impossible task in a divided house. On the other hand, Ruutel's announcement may force those parties that oppose him to forge together in the Parliament if they hope to defeat him.
The Center Party might be able to concoct such a consensus, giving controversial leader Edgar Savisaar a chance at the presidency during the electoral college round, Kattel said. "It would make sense if Savisaar runs against Ruutel," he speculated.
For his part, Savisaar has remained coy about his intentions: "I consider the likelihood of my running as extremely small.
The People's Union, gave Ruutel's candidacy the rubber stamp on June 12. Party leader, Villu Reijan, said Ruutel had done a good job in office, and deserved to serve another term. Reijan also expressed doubt that Parliament would unite to find a president, adding that if it managed to pull off such a stunt, "Ruutel will shake the new president's hand. But we don't believe in such an outcome. We're going to nominate Ruutel now so as not to gather again at the end of August."
As if to prepare for election mode, Ruutel released statistics that showed his own popularity on June 6 's the day before his big announcement. Not surprisingly, the survey showed Estonians favorably viewed his term in office.
According to monitoring group Turu-uuringute AS, the public confidence rating in the Head of State was at 76 percent.
Ruutel's press secretary was at pains to point out that former president Lennart Meri 's Ruutel's old rival 's scored 71 percent in a similar survey during his years in office.
The statistics also revealed that half of the respondents believed the president should be directly elected. (In the Baltics, only Lithuanians elect their president directly.) Given the squabbling and speculation between candidates, parties, parliament and the electoral college, half of the country believe it would be far more sensible if a single national vote decided the matter.