TARTU - After months of silence about their positions and goals if they were to win the upcoming presidential election, Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Indrek Tarand have started to explain their positions.
The two candidates went head-to-head for the first time in a debate held in the rooms of the Baltic News Service and organized by the President’s Office. One of the key issues the two candidates disagree over is the way presidents get elected in Estonia. In the present system, if the Riigikogu (the parliament) fails to choose a president, i.e. no single candidate gets 71 or more of the 101 votes, the president is elected by an electoral college made up of Riigikogu members and local government representatives. The Estonian parliament has never yet succeeded in choosing a president on its own.
Tarand argued that he supports electing the president directly, reports delfi.ee, which was the only online-portal to be invited to the debate in addition to the Estonian print media. Tarand said that it is necessary to ask the public’s opinion on the question of changing the constitution accordingly. “We are strong enough to dare to trust the citizens and we must dare to do it. But if we do not ask the people what they want, we do not know what they would answer.” He said he supports direct elections because Estonia is a strong enough parliamentary democracy to trust the judgment of the people.
Ilves, the incumbent president, supported direct elections in the past, but changed his opinion over the course of his current presidency. Ilves said that it is possible that Estonia follows the example of Finland, Lithuania or Austria. Yet he does not think this would be the most rational decision, looking at precedents from other countries. Ilves explained that he does not think that a direct election would give the people any more choice. He also argued that, although the first direct election would be fine, after that the participation percentage would drop significantly.
Tarand also criticized Ilves for not taking part in domestic political discussions. ERR News quoted Tarand: “Ilves has gigantic foreign policy instincts. But he has been suppressing his domestic policy instincts for the last year and a half, or even lost them a bit. The president wants to get re-elected and in that light it makes sense.” He said that in order to maximise the constitutional potential of the presidential role, he would try to start a tradition whereby the president does not run for a second term.
According to Tarand, Ilves should have been more vocal in politics.
Ilves defended himself by saying that he does not want to use his political veto (over declaring laws). “It is a slippery slope in a parliamentary country,” he said, explaining that he has used his veto once and after that the Riigikogu still adopted the law, without making any changes to it. Ilves emphasized that constitutionally, the president can only check whether new laws are in accordance with the constitution. Tarand said that occasionally using the veto would be justified as it would help start a debate in the society, in between the veto and the Riigikogu re-discussing the law, and the president could explain his position and the reasons why he used the veto.
Another key issue in Estonian politics is integration. Answering questions from delfi.ee, the two candidates explained their positions without explicitly disagreeing. Toomas Hendrik Ilves emphasized the role of the Estonian language in the integration process. Commenting on whether integration has failed in Estonia, Ilves stated that integration is a long process that cannot be finished in one generation. He added that it’s important that the state offers everyone the opportunity to learn the official state language. “We have to continue to enable all young people to get an Estonian language education. It is not possible to succeed in Estonia without the Estonian language,” he said, reports delfi.ee.
Tarand said that it is important to start forgiving the people who were against Estonian independence. He said an example of integration would be to invite those 70 people who voted against Estonian independence to the Independence Day celebrations, as well as the 69 who voted for independence in the Soviet Supreme Council. He quoted Kaido Kama and Vladimir Lebedev as helping the Supreme Council and the Committee of Estonia to reach an agreement. “It is time to show generosity to those people who fought against our independence.”
Ilves also explained his goals for a potential new presidency. He explained that the overall ambition can only be achieved by attaining many smaller goals. In short, he calls for the state to be closer to the people and work in crisis situations, as well as citizens to be active and know their freedoms and obligations. The initiatives of the people, as well as debates in the society, should be supported. Ilves called for the economy to value competition and entrepreneurship and for honest relations with regional and national powers.
The president also emphasized the importance of tolerance and a European habit of mind that appreciates other languages and cultures. “Only in this way can we reach an Estonia which is envied by others, not an obligation inherited from one’s parents.” He also criticized Eesti Energia for being able to make huge investments abroad, but at the same time does little when storms leave many customers without electricity at home.
The challenger, Tarand, has not yet published his program, reports postimees.ee. Firstly, he argued that the political parties have not asked for a political program from him over the summer, hinting that they are not interested in it. Secondly, he explained that he wants to draw emphasis on his goal of changing a law whereby presidential candidates can only be nominated a few days before the election.
The first round of the presidential elections will be held in Riigikogu on Aug. 29.