Election (Finally) breaking the deadlock. Estonian presidential elections 2016

Kersti Kaljulaid is the youngest (aged 46) and the first female president of the Estonian republic. According to an opinion poll that the Baltic News Service (BNS) agency conducted throughout the first half of October, the new President enjoyed an approval rate of 73% among the respondents. However, there were also these voices which hinted at the new president’s alleged lack of experience.

Published on balticworlds.com on October 24, 2016

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On October 3rd, 2016, the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) appointed Kersti Kaljulaid as the new President of the republic. A cross-party candidate and a former state official, who had served as Estonia’s representative in the European Court of Auditors (from 2004 to 2016), Kersti Kaljulaid is the youngest (aged 46) and the first female president of the Estonian republic[1]. Her election was preceded by two unsuccessful electoral contests on August 29th (first round) and 30th (second and third rounds) and an additional ballot, one month later on September 24th, at the Riigikogu’s Electoral College. So, what was the long trajectory that ultimately led to Kaljulaid’s appointment and how was this apparent deadlock finally dissolved?

The President of the Estonian republic: Main duties and the electoral procedure

Former President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, effectively used his post to enhance Estonia’s image abroad especially as far as the e-Governance project is concerned. Officially, however, the Estonian republic (Eesti Vabariik) is a parliamentary democracy where the President possesses no executive power as such. Persons eligible to run for the presidential office must be Estonian citizens by birth who have completed 40 years of age and have agreed to suspend any party affiliation during their tenure. Some of the main tasks and duties of the President are to: represent the state internationally; declare parliamentary elections; promulgate the national legislation; and, under special circumstances, propose amendments to the Constitution[2].

According to Article 79 of the Estonian Constitution, the President is elected by indirect and secret ballot in the Riigikogu[3].  Each MP has one vote and the candidate who wins a two-thirds majority is elected. If no candidate wins this majority, a new round is held on the following day which is preceded by the new nomination of candidates. If no candidate receives the required majority in the second round, a third round is held on the same day between the two candidates who garnered the greatest number of votes. If the President is still not elected, the Electoral College convenes to nominate the President. The latter institution comprises members of the Riigikogu as well as representatives from the bodies of municipal and local administration. The Electoral College nominates the President by a two-thirds majority of its entire membership and if no candidate is selected in the first round, a second round is held on the same day between the two candidates who received the largest share of votes.

Estonia’s political landscape: Introducing the main parties and their agendas

Estonia is currently run by a coalition government which consists of the following participants: the Reform Party (RP), the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), and the Social Democrats (SDP)[4]. The two former can be classified as parties of the centre-right with a variably conservative and liberal orientation whereas the SDP’s leadership positions the party within the broader frame of European social democracy. RP is led by Taavi Rõivas, the current Prime Minister, and has 30 members in the 101-member Riigikogu, making it the largest party in the legislative assembly. The Social Democrats elected 15 MPs in the latest parliamentary elections (2015) under the leadership of the current Minister of Health and Labour, Jevgeni Ossinovski. As for IRL, they are the fourth strongest party in the Riigikogu (14 seats) and their leader is Margus Tsahkna.

On the level of programmatic discourse and their party agenda, the Social Democrats have issued calls for upgrading the social welfare infrastructure. Therefore, this party does not fully subscribe to the neoliberal consensus between their centre-right partners in the government. Nevertheless, a set of complementary policy priorities help provide a common ground among the three partners. These are, namely: safeguarding Estonia’s trajectory within the EU and maintaining the steady cooperation with Washington and the regional allies over security issues under the umbrella of NATO; promoting the e-Governance project and accelerating the social integration process of the Russophone community within the state’s interior.

The Centre Party (Eesti Kekerakond) is a nominally centrist/centre-left party under the leadership of veteran politician and former mayor of Tallinn, Edgar Savisaar. The latter was suspended from the mayor’s office on September 30th, 2015, following accusations of corruption[5]. Eesti Keskerakond is currently represented with 27 MPs in the parliament making it the second largest party in its own right. A closer examination can demonstrate that the Centre Party is one more post-Communist political organization which is not easy to locate with high accuracy along the traditional left-right axis. Although it tends to strike a leftist stance in sectors such as the economy and social welfare, its political values over other areas of engagement appear to lean towards a socially conservative angle (e.g. the Centre Party’s reservations over the new legal framework on LGBT rights in Estonia). The party has been particularly popular among elderly voters and Estonia’s Russophone minority. With regard to foreign policy, it has called for a new modus vivendi with Moscow and advocates for the less intensive involvement of NATO in the Baltic Sea region.

A relatively new party of the populist right, the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) delivered an impressive performance in the latest parliamentary elections garnering 8.1% of the vote. EKRE’s appeal seems to be on the rise and it currently stands as the third most popular party[6]. The party-chairman, Mart Helme, had served as Estonia’s ambassador to Russia between 1995 and 1999. EKRE’s agenda largely capitalizes on identity politics. The party has repeatedly protested against the recent adoption of a legal framework on LGBT rights by the Riigikogu and harbours fears that the EU’s refugee quotas arrangement may open the floodgate for Europe’s gradual ‘Islamization’[7]. In regards to security policies, EKRE contends that greater attention must be paid towards upgrading the potential of Estonian armed forces to such an extent that they, themselves, would be highly capable of resisting a Russian offensive.

Selecting and endorsing the presidential candidates: A blurry atmosphere 

The nomination and endorsement of their candidate turned out to be a lengthy and complex procedure for the Reform Party. As early as late March, the former EU Commissioner and honorary Reform Party chairman, Siim Kallas, announced his intention to run for President. Nevertheless, the state of affairs became rather complicated following the interest of Marina Kaljurand to run as an independent candidate for the Estonian presidency. An independent politician, nominated by RP, Kaljurand served as Minister of Foreign Affairs between July 16th, 2015, and September 12th, 2016. A key aspect which rendered the final selection a particularly intricate task for the Reform Party was Kaljurand’s high popular appeal[8]. As late as mid-August, she remained the most popular potential candidate for the Estonian presidency according to a series of public surveys[9].

The atmosphere did not become clearer until late July. In a letter addressed to the RP’s leadership, Kaljurand stated that Siim Kallas should be their candidate in the presidential election at the Riigikogu and ‘if the election of the President should not succeed in the Riigikogu, then I would ask the Reform Party, other parties, and independent members of the Electoral College to support me there’[10]. Soon after, the party leadership affirmed Kallas as their official candidate. In addition to intra-party cleavages within the RP, Kaljurand’s candidacy was externally contested by EKRE. The party’s second-in-command, Martin Helme, and other EKRE MPs repeatedly hinted at her partly Latvian and partly Russian family origins. In their opinion, this caused a discrepancy with Article 79 of the Constitution and the basic requirement for presidential candidates to be ‘Estonian citizens by birth[11]. This, in turn, triggered a parliamentary row between EKRE and the Social Democrats. Nevertheless, EKRE’s allegations did not take any toll on Kaljurand’s appeal among the country’s public or on her prospective candidacy as such.

At around the same time, the veteran politician and chairman of the Riigikogu, Eiki Nestor, announced his intention to run as the Social Democrats’ candidate[12]. Meanwhile, the former Chancellor of Justice, Allar Jõks, voiced his interest in running for the presidential seat and secured the support of IRL and the smaller (liberal) Free Party[13]. Outside the government coalition, Edgar Savisaar initially expressed his intention to compete for the presidency. Nevertheless, the Centre Party’s parliamentary group ultimately decided to endorse Mailis Reps’ candidacy instead[14]. Lastly, the party-chairman Mart Helme was EKRE’s choice for the presidential race.

A long sequence of unsuccessful ballots (August 29th-30th and September 24th)                            

One day before the first electoral round of August 29th, the National Electoral Committee had officially registered Siim Kallas, Mailis Reps, Allar Jõks, and Eiki Nestor as candidates. As specified by the electoral legislation, all candidates had met the requirement to secure the support of, at least, 21 members of the Riigikogu. Reps was endorsed by 27, Jõks by 21, and Nestor by 43 MPs respectively. Kallas decided not to stand for election in the first round but to join in the race on the following day. Chairman of the Riigikogu Eiki Nestor (SDP) won 40 votes, followed by the Centre Party’s candidate, Mailis Reps, with 26, and IRL & Free Party candidate Allar Jõks coming in last with 24 votes. Consequently, the first round concluded without a winner and a second round was scheduled for August 30th. Although RP had initially pledged to support the SDP nominee in the first round, they later reneged from their commitment. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the Social Democrats from supporting Kallas in the second round[15].

In the second round of the presidential election in the Riigikogu, Kallas got the 45 votes he could expect from the Reform Party and the Social Democrats, Reps won 32, and Jõks came in last with 21 votes. Consequently, a runoff between Kallas and Reps was proclaimed for later on the same day. In the third round, Kallas won 42 and Reps 26 votes but neither of them garnered the 68 votes required by the electoral legislation. As the three ballot rounds in the Riigikogu had been completed without a winner, the 335-member Electoral College (consisting of the 101 Riigikogu MPs plus 234 appointed representatives of the municipalities and localities) was called to convene on September 24th in another attempt to elect the head of state. Consistent to her earlier pledge, Marina Kaljurand submitted her resignation to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and officially announced her presidential candidacy on September 9th. This posed an obvious riddle for RP and triggered suspicions over a likely intra-party split between those affiliates opting for Kallas and those preferring Kaljurand. The latter’s candidacy indirectly generated frictions beyond the government coalition parties. On September 13th, Mart Helme demanded that Raimond Danilov, one of EKRE’s municipal representatives at the Electoral College, must leave the party following his decision to back Kaljurand instead of the EKRE leader and presidential candidate[16].

The candidates for the ballot of September 24th were Mart Helme (EKRE), Mailis Reps (Centre Party), Siim Kallas (RP), Allar Jõks (IRL) and Marina Kaljurand (independent). In the first round, Jõks won 83 votes, Kallas 81, and Reps 79 whereas, contrary to most predictions, Kaljurand sank to the fourth place with 75 votes. In the runoff that followed, Kallas garnered 138 to the 134 votes won by Jõks but this still did not suffice to elect a new president. Consequently, the Council of Elders at the Riigikogu was invited to negotiate and propose a cross-party nominee. The Estonian press greeted this string of failed attempts to appoint a new head of state with discontent and indignation. Particular attention was paid to the shifting loyalties and petty motives on the level of micro-politics while the entirety of the country’s press converged along the judgment that a universal nominee could have been agreed upon long before appealing to the Council of Elders. The daily Eesti Päevaleht literally spoke of a ‘disgraceful precedent’ caused by the participant parties’ (RP and Centre Party, in particular) ‘complete lack of consensus and insistence on casting their votes on no one else but their own candidates at any cost’. Postimees, from their part, hinted at ‘the time and financial resources wasted during the five months of the electoral campaign’. Meanwhile, the editorial of Õhtuleht not only highlighted the absence of a consensus culture from Estonian politics, it also stressed that ‘as tangible reality itself demonstrated, it is about time for the electoral legislation to change’.

Following this series of unsuccessful ballots, the Council of Elders at the Riigikogu convened on September 27th. Later on the same day, Eiki Nestor announced that the Council had nominated Kersti Kaljulaid as the cross-party candidate for the ballot to take place on October 3rd. Kaljulaid wholeheartedly accepted her nomination whereas all political parties in the parliament approved, to varying degrees, her candidacy[17]. Consequently, Kersti Kaljulaid became the next head of Eesti Vabariik with 81 votes in the ensuing ballot of October 3rd in the parliament.

Early reactions and expectations for the future

According to an opinion poll that the Baltic News Service (BNS) agency conducted throughout the first half of October, the new President enjoyed an approval rate of 73% among the respondents[18]. Several commentators greeted Kersti Kaljulaid’s appointment to the presidential office as a younger and fresh voice with the potential to unite the country’s political forces and make a sound and constructive contribution during her tenure. However, there were also these voices which hinted at the new president’s alleged lack of experience and emphasized that Kaljulaid’s election was a last resort forced by the absence of consensus and the state of fragmentation among Estonia’s political elites.

As the former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted, the most important lesson learnt from the presidential election is that ‘we need a feeling of support – talking, listening and respecting each other – within Estonia, more than we have seen to date’[19]. Nevertheless there were also these voices such as Eerik-Niiles Kross, a deputy from the Reform Party, who adopted a more critical tone and asserted that, after all these months, it is about time to ‘return to discussing serious issues’ such as Russia’s military engagement in the Baltic Sea region and the urgent necessity to enhance Estonia’s role under the auspices of NATO[20].


[1]http://news.err.ee/v/c8caa0fd-0e51-4e72-82d9-90d981acc171 .

[2]https://president.ee/en/president/legal-authority/ .

[3]https://www.riigiteataja.ee/en/eli/ee/530102013003/consolide/current .

[4]http://estonia.eu/about-estonia/country/government.html .

[5]http://news.err.ee/v/politics/bd2685cb-2efe-4d7c-ac33-c26c09f9cf3d/savisaar-named-suspect-in-bribery-case .

[6]http://www.balticbusinessnews.com/article/2016/2/8/is-ekre-changing-estonian-political-landscape .

[7]https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/vassilis-petsinis/contentious-politics-in-baltics-new-wave-of-right-wing-populism .

[8] http://news.err.ee/v/b62483a7-4feb-49ca-8d76-dd1538353e12 .

[9] http://news.err.ee/v/4c9b6b97-7391-4ea1-ad44-5e5774048031 .

[10]http://news.err.ee/v/be3d5f02-cb49-4ace-a356-a34798aa2dda .

[11]http://news.postimees.ee/3657113/martin-helme-axe-laid-to-marina-kaljurand-roots .

[12]http://news.err.ee/v/038bdf0b-192b-4762-b488-63b0a857a3f7 .

[13]http://news.err.ee/v/news/0f1e8604-a6d2-494c-9e80-567a95c16ba1/former-chancellor-of-justice-allar-joks-confirmed-next-potential-presidential-candidate .

[14]http://news.err.ee/v/fcff871b-4cfd-4eed-a531-72611ec858db .


[16] http://news.err.ee/v/news/a0e02673-4e99-4b0e-9251-51ff61623c92/elector-told-to-leave-ekre-after-saying-he-would-support-kaljurand-not-helme .

[17] http://news.err.ee/v/e8c8117a-5ef7-4c5e-96ef-2c43f52a383b .

[18] http://news.err.ee/v/241f6018-9955-47a9-94c5-bddc38d1b589 .

[19] http://news.err.ee/v/e2fa8840-25c9-4d9c-a4da-7907a14fb397 .

[20] http://news.err.ee/v/7a654a26-e065-41fc-bfb6-983b82536c2e .

  • by Vassilis Petsinis

    Visiting Researcher at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies (University of Tartu) courtesy of a research stipend from the Swedish Institute.

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