TALLINN - The gap between Estonia's two presidential nominees has narrowed, with analysts predicting a nail-biting vote count at the Electoral College meeting on Sept. 23. Supporters of the two candidates, incumbent Arnold Ruutel and Social Democrat Toomas Hendrik Ilves, both claim their side has the numbers to win the election.
A simple majority in the 347-member Electoral College will secure victory.
Yet Ruutel has already expressed doubt that the Electoral College will be able to select a candidate within the allowed two rounds of voting.
In such a case, Estonia faces the undesirable prospect of the vote returning to Parliament 's the very body which was unable to muster enough cohesion to select a candidate in the first place.
Epp Maarten, deputy head of the Central Electoral Committee secretariat, said the vote would continue to bounce between Parliament and the Electoral College until one body was able to find a large enough majority to elect a candidate.
"This is the only system, there is no back-up. First Parliament must try, then the Electoral College. If the Electoral College fails, it comes back to Parliament, and so on," Maarten said.
During a national radio debate with Ilves, Ruutel said he would not stand as a candidate if the vote reverted to Parliament. Many parties in Parliament were minded against him from the start, the incumbent president added.
In the same radio debate, Ilves performed as the stronger speaker, according to the various media commentators who observed the debate.
Opinion polls show a similar result. One Emor poll, commissioned by the Postimees daily newspaper, showed that Ilves would win if the elections were decided by a popular vote instead of the Electoral College. The poll showed 48 percent of respondents favored Ilves, ahead of Ruutel at 34 percent, while 18 percent were undecided.
The poll showed that, surprisingly, rural constituents favored Ilves over Ruutel. Analysts have long assumed that Ruutel would enjoy strong popularity in rural and country areas.
Yet another poll showed that the public was deeply unhappy with Ruutel's supporting parties, the Center Party and the People's Union, who boycotted the parliamentary vote and forced the formation of the Electoral College.
A survey by Faktum and Ariko found that 72 percent of respondents thought the two parties were unjustified in their actions. Further, 81 percent of respondents said they were in favor of direct elections. Only 11 percent felt the current parliamentary system of election was optimal, and only two percent favored the Electoral College system.
Each candidate's backers claim to have a majority of votes.
The Reform Party, which is supporting Ilves' campaign, says undecided voters will sway the vote.
"Ilves has a very good chance, in fact we are quite certain he will win," Reform spokesman Henry Arras told The Baltic Times. "We can't give exact numbers, but our calculations show that Ilves has an advantage. Quite a lot of voters haven't said who they support, though."
Ruutel's party, the People's Union, made similar claims. People's Union spokesman Agu Uudelepp said his party had at least 159 supporters in the Electoral College, and expected more to be tallied as signed confirmation letters arrived in the mail.
Meanwhile, members of the press have been busy compiling their own figures. A Postimees calculation found that Ilves had secured 144 votes, ahead of Ruutel's 135, with 66 undecided. Estonian Radio predicted that Ilves would win 170 votes to Ruutel's 159. The national radio broadcaster claimed to have gone one step further than Postimees by getting answers out of several electors who had previously refused to disclose their preference.
The exact number of votes required to win the election remains unknown, as the final number of electors remains uncertain. Already two local councils, Lihula and Vihula, have told the Central Electoral Committee they are unable to select a representative to dispatch to Tallinn, and will therefore forfeit their voting rights.
The vote will take place at 12:00 in the Concert Hall of the Estonian National Opera House, with each representative entering a curtained booth to cast their anonymous vote.
The Estonian media has questioned whether mobile phones should be allowed inside the Concert Hall, as this may allow representatives to photograph their ballot paper to prove their vote, thus destroying the principle of anonymity.
The Central Electoral Committee said it was undecided about the matter, but did not rule out banning mobile phones as a result.