TARTU - On Monday, Aug. 29, the Estonian Parliament, the Riigikogu, elected Toomas Hendrik Ilves to his second consecutive term in Kadrioru Palace. His candidacy was supported by three out of the four parties in parliament. He ran against the so-called “protest candidate,” Indrek Tarand, who recently achieved a landslide victory in the European Parliament elections and was nominated for the presidency by the Center Party.
Ilves was re-elected with 73 votes. Tarand took 25; three ballot papers were deliberately made invalid by either crossing both boxes, or none at all. For the first time in the new Estonian Republic, the president was elected in the first round of voting in Riigikogu. Previous elections have not been conclusive in the two Riigikogu rounds and have had to culminate in the Electoral College which, in addition to members of parliament, includes representatives from local governments. In order to elect the president in the first round, one candidate has to get two-thirds of the votes, which means 68 ballots. When the ballot counter reached that magical number, Riigikogu erupted in applause – the Speaker had to ask for calm by saying “there will be a time to applaud.”
The three parties that had vouched for Ilves – the Reform Party, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica and the Social Democrats – had a combined total of 75 MPs, which meant a safety margin of seven for Ilves.
A few weeks ago Tarand announced that he had promises from ten of these MPs, who were going to go against party orders in the secret election and cast their votes for him. It is clear that he did not fare as well as he had hoped, but two people still crossed boxes for both Tarand and Ilves. It is up to the parties to draw their own conclusions from this.
While the elections took place inside, there was a small group of people protesting in front of Riigikogu, asking for direct elections, organized by the Estonian National Movement. Compared to protests in Western Europe, it was quite a quiet and reserved one. Tarand started the historic day at parliament with a spectacle for journalists. Upon arriving at Toompea, where the Riigikogu is located, he nailed his nine theses to the door of the parliament, reminiscent of Martin Luther. He had not revealed a concise election program before. In his nine theses, he promised a more person-centered approach, advancing gender equality, and his pet-topic – the direct election of the president. This was followed by some awkwardness when Tarand attempted to sit next to the incumbent Ilves in an area reserved only for the president. He had to be asked by Speaker Ene Ergma to go to the viewing area.
The Center Party and Tarand had hoped for eight or more people defecting from the parties that had promised support to Ilves, in order to move the election to the Electoral College. Representatives from the Center Party argued that just holding the election in the Riigikogu is not representative of the opinions of the entire Estonia. In the current system, where direct elections are not an option, the Electoral College for them at least widens the circle of decision-makers. Nevertheless, their dreams did not come true. Tarand’s role at least was to enable a debate.
There was only one televised debate – held on Saturday night. Tarand’s strategy was to attack the nomination process (the so-called back-room politics), Ilves’ lack of involvement in domestic politics, being out of touch with normal people and his background of being born and raised abroad. Tarand also lashed out at the prime minister, claiming Andrus Ansip had a background in Soviet military intelligence. There is no proof to support that claim and Ansip was adamant that it was completely fabricated. Ilves remained calm and somewhat distant, continuing with his quiet intellectual style of debating, that some observers call condescending.
He will never get support from the Center Party, as the only time he has forcefully involved himself in domestic politics was during the revelations that the head of the Center Party, Edgar Savisaar, had attempted to find funding for his party from Russian oligarchs. This perhaps also explains why there were no Center Party MPs voting for Ilves on the Riigikogu ballot.
It is unclear whether the debate had any bearing on the decision made by the members of parliament, or was it just an entertainment program for the general public. The election brought no surprises and demonstrated a new level of maturity in the Estonian political system.
Following his re-election, Ilves received flowers and congratulations from the Speaker of the Parliament and many MPs. In a speech to the Riigikogu full house, Ilves said: “I would like to thank the Riigikogu for the trust they have placed in me – there is only one way to earn it. That is to serve Estonia and all the people who live here in the manner prescribed by the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia. The decision made is historical. Not because of who got elected, or those who ran for the position. The decision is historical because this was the first time you elected the president of the Republic of Estonia in the manner which the creators of our Constitution envisioned and inscribed almost 20 years ago, and which has the clear support of the Estonian people. This is the first time you exercised the constitutional right to elect the president in the Riigikogu and, thereby, shown yourselves as maximalists of parliamentarism and the Constitution.” Ilves also promised to serve all people in Estonia, regardless of their language or background. Opinion polls before the election, however, showed he had little support among national minorities.
This speech was a logical continuation from several statements made during the previous weeks, where Ilves said he supports the continuation of the current electoral system and not following in the footsteps of countries that have direct elections.