Ilves wins Estonian presidency, nation celebrates

  • 2006-09-27
  • By Joel Alas

SMASHING VICTORY: An Ilves presidency will reinvigorate Estonia's EU membership and give the country a higher profile in Brussels.

TALLINN - Cheers erupted in bars and shops across Tallinn as Toomas Hendrik Ilves was declared Estonia's new president. "This was a choice between looking backwards or moving forwards," explained one jubilant celebrator. Ilves, the 52-year old European Parliamentarian and former foreign affairs minister, won 174 votes in the Electoral College, beating incumbent Arnold Ruutel, 78, who gathered 162 votes.

With the victory, Ilves, a former U.S. citizen, rounds off a North American domination of the three Baltic presidencies. Latvia's Vaira Vike-Freiberga was a Canadian citizen and Lithuania's Valdas Adamkus held a U.S. passport.
Until the last weeks of campaigning, Ruutel was widely expected to enjoy an easy re-election.

Yet the nation reacted angrily toward the underhanded politicking of Ruutel's supporting parties, the Center Party and the People's Union, which undermined the parliamentary round of voting and led to the formation of the Electoral College.
The final result was viewed as, not only a vote in favor of Ilves, but a protest against Ruutel and his supporting parties.
But as the celebrations die down, questions are already being raised about Ilves' compatibility with the current government, the conservative coalition of the Reform Party, the Center Party and the People's Union.

Tartu University political analyst Rein Toomla said clashes may soon emerge between the government and the president, who must promulgate all bills before they become law.
"The first problem may be with the state budget. The Social Democrats are very unsatisfied with the budget. What must Ilves do? He is no longer a member of the party, but I am sure that he still has social democratic viewpoints," Toomla said.
"We could have a situation where the president and prime minister are running in different directions."
Ilves said he wanted to re-unite the nation, which has been split by the divisive election campaign. He said Estonia should become one of Europe's leading idea generators.

The European Parliamentarian also gave an indication of the direction of Estonia's future relations with Russia. "The road to Moscow goes via Brussels," Ilves told reporters.
"In a number of fields, we have seen that, after the enlargement of the European Union, the influence of the new member states has been significantly smaller than what we would have liked it to be. I believe that Estonia should be one of those who start taking the floor more in Europe."

Much has been made of Ilves' western leanings. Born in Sweden to exiled Estonian parents, he was educated in the United States where he obtained degrees in psychology and worked as an academic.
During his career, he has worked as a journalist, radio correspondent, ambassador, foreign affairs minister, Estonian parliamentarian for the Moderates (later the Social Democrats), and more recently a member of the European Parliament.
Ilves' election means that all three Baltic nations are led by presidents who lived as exiles from their home nations.
Analysts said Ilves' orientation toward Brussels was not so different from Ruutel's. It was Ruutel who encouraged the nation to join the EU in the first place, Toomla said.

"But Ilves' attitudes toward Russia are quite complicated. Russia knows perfectly well who Ilves is and where he came from," he added.
Toomla said the final vote was swung by a handful of independent voters who were swayed by a number of factors, including the behavior of the Center Party and People's Union. "Maybe after their actions, one or two voters decided 'I'll go for Ilves,'" he said.
Another deciding factor was the Estonian media's apparent support of Ilves and dislike of Ruutel. The incumbent's age, limited foreign affairs skills and his poor grasp of foreign languages also helped sway the decision in Ilves' favor, Toomla said.
"This is the smallest victory in the history of independent Estonia. Ilves won by about 12 votes. Ten years ago, the difference between the two candidates was 60 votes, and five years ago it was 25."

What was surprising, the academic added, was the number of independent voters who were chosen by the local councils to go to the Electoral College.
Toomla said he doubted Ilves would try to emulate his hero, the revered Lennart Meri. "Meri was a good example, but times have changed and we need a different kind of leader now."
Ilves will take office on Oct. 9, ahead of the historic visit by United States President George W. Bush.