TALLINN - President Arnold Ruutel moved a step closer to a second term in office after Parliament failed to elect a new president on Aug. 28 's 29. Lawmakers from two center-parties abstained from voting in the ballots, and as a result the two candidates 's Ene Ergma and Toomas Hendrik-Ilves 's supported by three center-right and right-wing parties failed to muster the necessary 68 votes needed to elect a new head of state.
It marked the second time in five years that the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament) failed to elect a president, forcing the creation of an electoral college that will be charged with the task of electing Estonia a new head of state.
Edgar Savisaar, chairman of the center-left Center Party, told reporters on Aug. 29 that the electoral college would select Ruutel on Sept. 23. "The electoral college will make a good choice, because the electors have only been recently elected, with fresh mandates and should therefore quite accurately reflect opinions of the people," he said.
MPs from the Center Party and the People's Union, both center-left parties that form two-thirds of the ruling coalition, stuck to their guns and didn't even show up in Parliament during the two days despite calls from opposition MPs.
As a result, parties launched into a vicious bout of finger-pointing, with both sides of the spectrum blaming the other for unconstitutional and devious activities. At one point even the Reform Party, the third coalition partner, hit back at the two center-left parties.
Indeed, emotion ran high throughout the beginning of the week, sparking an unprecedented plea from Ulle Aaskivi, a government adviser, who made an unscheduled speech before Parliament calling on all MPs to vote on the two presidential candidates. But the plea by Aaskivi, who was described as a hero by local media for her speech, was ignored by the Center Party and the People's Union, who openly support a second term for Ruutel.
On Aug. 28, Ene Ergma, a former rocket scientist and a member of Res Publica, collected 65 votes in her favor 's three short of the required number. The scene was repeated the following day when Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a member of the European Parliament and a top figure in Estonia's Social Democratic Party, mustered just 64 votes.
The center-left parties and President Ruutel blasted the election as undemocratic 's even Soviet 's since only one candidate was put forward in each round of voting.
"A situation where only one name appears on the ballot does not represent the democratic ideals in the name of which we restored our independence," Ruutel was quoted as saying.
Tonis Lukas, co-chairman of the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, struck back at the center-left parties. "It is very bad that the Center Party and People's Union factions have taken an arrogant stance and have decided not to take part in the elections, but the people understand very well what role anyone has taken and will draw their own conclusions," he said. They have turned the presidential elections into a cheap show."
The two candidates themselves, who had been put forward by a council comprised of four parties, called for reforming the current system.
Ergma told The Baltic Times it was now clear that reform was needed. "We need to directly elect the president," she said outside the parliamentary chamber, minutes after the predictable result was handed down.
"I will try my best to make this happen, and my party is committed to it. This year what has happened has put hard pressure on the other parties to also consider changing to direct elections," she said.
Ilves said he also believed reform was necessary.
"We have two institutions that can decide the presidency. It's really a dumb thing to do 's to have two systems doing the same job. We should decide which one we want to do it," Ilves said, adding that the constituency of the electoral college was an inadequate representation of the nation.
Ilves is expected to run against Ruutel in the electoral college round next month.
Tallinn University of Technology political analyst, Professor Raimond Katel, said he doubted that even the tumultuous events of the week would bring about electoral reform.
"Some parties tried to bring about an agenda for change some years ago, but it became obvious that there was not a majority in parliament to support these changes. Politicians are scared of the 'populist trap' 's that direct elections of the president will turn it into a populist position," Katel said.
"The Center Party has the momentum now. They are supporting Ruutel, and they want the old system to continue."
Politicians ran a gauntlet of young protesters on their way into Parliament. One girl waved a placard comparing Center leader Savisaar and Villu Reiljan, the head of the People's Union, to Johan Laidoner and Konstantin Pats, the army commander and president who controversially froze Estonia's political systems and liberties in the 1930s.
The demonstrators, made up of four different conservative political youth parties, said they wanted politicians to obey the constitution or change it.
"They didn't do their job," organizer Kristjan Vanaselja said. "We have to question whether we want to change so we can directly elect the president, but we also must ask how much power we give the president. Estonia must decide if we want a presidential state or a parliamentary government state."
The actions of the two parties drew widespread criticism from national media. The Postimees daily said the result meant Estonia's political system had collapsed. "We will have a president not trusted by the representatives of the people, and representatives of the people whom the president does not trust," the paper wrote.