TALLINN - Estonia's two center-left parties, the People's Union and the Center Party, all but destroyed any hope that Parliament would be able to elect the next president after they announced this week that they have begun joint negotiations on finding a common presidential candidate.
The Center Party announced that it had formed a three-member panel to conduct negotiations with the People's Union, which is keen to see incumbent Arnold Ruutel re-elected. The two parties make up two-thirds of the current ruling coalition.
Then, on July 17, the Center Party's governing board decided to begin negotiations with the People's Union. A spokesperson for the Center Party said the three-member delegation was made up of Chairman Edgar Savisaar, faction leader Ain Seppik and general secretary Kadri Must.
The council's decision comes in response to a letter by the People's Union proposing that the two parties work together 's not only now, but during the general elections next spring.
At the same time, the Centrists stressed that they would continue searching for a candidate with four other parliamentary parties 's the Reform Party, Res Publica and Pro Patria and the Social Democrats.
Still, the fact that the Center Party has decided to negotiate on two fronts highlighted its growing influence in the run-up to the preliminary ballot, which will take place in August.
More importantly, the pairing of the Centrists and the People's Union is significant in that it will have the strongest position in the electoral college, which, according to the constitution, will be charged with electing a head of state if Parliament is incapable of doing so. The electoral college is made up of both MPs and officials from municipal councils, where the Centrists and the People's Union are particularly strong.
Be that as it may, the major political parties are keeping their fingers crossed that the next president will be elected by Parliament. A roundtable of the five parties will meet this week to narrow a shortlist of common candidates from four to two. The parties will meet again on Aug. 3 to decide on a final common candidate, whom they will present to Parliament for a vote on Aug. 28.
If that fails, the task will go to the electoral college. And this is precisely how Ruutel, Estonia's last communist-era leader, was elected five years ago.
Tartu University political analyst Rein Toomla said that, together, the Center Party and the People's Union present a strong front.
"They will have a majority in the electoral college but not in Parliament. They hold approximately one-third of the seats in Parliament but have a slight majority in the Electoral College. They have worked together before, and have similar centrist goals," Toomla told The Baltic Times.
Few were ready to predict whether the next president would be elected in Parliament, pointing out that the board's decision hasn't extinguished hope to this end.
"The probability's always between one in a hundred," Must said. "We'll do everything to find the best president for Estonia," she added.
It is no secret that the People's Union will spare no effort to see that Ruutel, who has refused to run in the parliamentary round of voting, is re-elected.
People's Union Chairman Villu Reiljan said he was glad to hear Center's decision. "The People's Union and Center Party have worked together before and always to the benefit of the Estonian people. Be it the struggle to keep power stations in Estonia's ownership, the last presidential elections, or ensuring a pension rise," said Reiljan, who is minister of environment.
In a letter to the Centrists, Reiljan proposed that the two parties start discussing a common strategy and tactics for the presidential election, which would create a good basis for continued cooperation during next year's general elections.
On the right, MPs were still determined to have a Parliament-elected head of state. Taavi Veskimagi, co-chairman of the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, said the former still harbored this goal.
"And we have no reason to say at this point that the Center Party has left the roundtable," he said, though he admitted that the Center's decision to hold double-talks reduced the chances of parties of Parliament electing a president.
He said that the Reform Party, Social Democrats and Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica have 65 votes in Parliament, just three short of the 68 votes needed to elect the president.
Still, Veskimagi voiced hope that a strong candidate backing European values could, nevertheless, earn the necessary number of votes in a secret ballot in Parliament.
MP Eiki Nestor, a leader for the Social Democrats, said such a decision by the Center Party could be expected. Likewise, the move would somewhat reduce the possibility of electing the president in Parliament, he said.