TALLINN - The number-crunching has begun in earnest as the Estonian presidential election race moves into its next phase, a two-man contest between incumbent Arnold Ruutel and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a member of the European Parliament.
Both candidates claim to have a larger number of votes in the electoral college, yet it appears the balance of power will be wielded by a handful of swinging electors who have yet to decide their preference.
The People's Union, Ruutel's staunchest backers, said it had secured 184 votes in the 347-seat electoral college, with 174 votes needed for victory.
Meanwhile, Ilves' backers, including the Reform Party, said they had 166 assured votes and claimed Ruutel could only count on receiving 161 votes, leaving 20 undecided.
The electoral college will convene on Sept. 23 in the concert hall of the National Opera House. Unlike the parliamentary system, which failed because it could not muster the required two-thirds majority, only a simple majority of votes is required.
The college is made up of the 101 members of the Riigikogu (Estonia's parliament), plus representatives of each local council. The college elected Ruutel, former head of the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian S.S.R., to his first term in office in 2001.
People's Union spokesman Agu Uudelepp said the party had canvassed its rural branches.
"We counted the local governments where the majority belongs to either the People's Union or the Center Party, or to members of parliament from these two parties," Uudelepp said.
In addition to rural council representatives, Ruutel can count on support from the People's Union and Center Party's 35 parliamentary members, Uudelepp said.
It was the combined effort of these 35 parliamentarians last week that undermined a four-party effort to elect a president in Parliament, thereby forcing the decision on the electoral college. The Reform Party believes this tactic upset the nation, and predicted Ruutel would bear the brunt of a voter backlash in the College.
Reform leader and Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said despite the People's Union and the Center Party's posturing, his party's analysis showed that Ilves, a Social Democrat and former foreign minister, had the upper hand.
"The Reform Party and the other parties that support Ilves have joined forces and work is going on at full pace. We derive additional strength from the knowledge that the large majority of [ethnic] Estonians are with us," Ansip said.
He added that Ilves was supported by 60 percent of ethnic Estonians, while Ruutel had only about 30 percent support among this voter group. Ethnic Estonians made up 90 percent of electors in the college, he said.
"I am convinced that the electors will not go to the electoral college to indifferently obey their party's order but to elect the best president for Estonia by conscience. Each elector is a tiny part of the Estonian nation, and they certainly come to elect for and in the name of the relatives and the people of their village," Ansip said. He illustrated the contest between Ilves, aged 52, and Ruutel, aged 78, as a decision between stepping into the future or sinking into the past.
It was unclear how Ansip's determined campaigning on behalf of Ilves would affect relations with his coalition partners, the left-wing Center Party and People's Union.
The past has certainly become a feature of the current campaign, with the Estonian media airing damaging allegations from Ruutel's period as deputy prime minister of the Estonian Socialist Soviet Republic.
The weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress published a feature story that detailed Ruutel's involvement in imprisoning Dr. Johannes Hint, a physicist and human rights activist who died in 1985 while serving out charges of embezzling state property and agitating against the Soviet regime. The paper said that in 1981, Ruutel ordered the KGB to investigate the company Desintegraator, where Hint conducted his research, six months prior to his arrest.
On Sept. 5, Ruutel issued a statement defended himself, saying that he had only requested that Desintegraator's practices be brought up to standard and that Hint had been in charge of the company's standard compliance at the time.
"Linking my activity with repressions against Johannes Hint is absolutely groundless. Careful readers may become convinced of this also on the basis of the documents cited in the press, where the accusing title of the article and its contents do not correspond to each other," Ruutel said.
The president added that he had nothing to hide, and that his former roles in the E.S.S.R. were on public record.
"During my entire career as a politician, I have sought to work for the good of Estonia and our people," Ruutel said.
He said he believed the information was released as part of an effort to "drive the presidential campaign into an impasse."
Meanwhile, the failed candidate from the parliamentary round of voting, former scientist and current parliamentary deputy speaker Ene Ergma, re-iterated her belief that electoral reform was necessary. "I prefer direct elections," Ergma told The Baltic Times. "The actions of the People's Union and the Center Party were clearly unconstitutional. They should have taken part in the elections."