Estonian presidential vote foiled again by party politicking

Estonian presidential vote foiled again by party politicking
Ilves has strengthened the power of the presidency
By bne IntelliNews September 26, 2016

Criticism of the rules governing the election of a new Estonian president mounted on September 26 after a third failure to choose a new head of state.

Following two unsuccessful efforts by the parliament last month, hopes were attached to the electoral college - a wider body consisting of parliamentarians and representatives of local governments - to finally vote in a new president. However, party divisions remained too strong to overcome on September 24. The procedure reverts back to the lower house on October 3, although it is unclear how the stalemate could be resolved.

In the electoral college vote that took place during two rounds on September 26, Siim Kallas, the former EU transport commissioner put forward by the coalition-leading Center Party, led with 138 votes. However, that was clearly short of the 167 needed to win. Main rival Allar Joks, supported by IRL and the Free Party, won 134 votes. 

The return of the vote to parliament is unprecedented, and has Estonian media, and even Kallas himself, talking of constitutional crisis. The candidate had pledged ahead of the vote that should the ballot prove inconclusive he would not stand again on October 3. Joks has also said he will not run. That means the major parties have just a week to come up with new candidates that can cross party lines.

"We are facing a new situation now and need new candidates. I hope that the [parliament] will elect Estonia's next president this time," remarked Presdient Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who will depart having served the constitutional limit of two terms, according to the Baltic Times. "I also hope the parliament learns from the present rollercoaster."

The Estonian media are sceptical however, and calling for change. “The authors of the constitution couldn’t have imagined that intrigues between and within parties could grow so strong that they would make a presidential election fail," Paevalehts writes in an editorial. "Part of the electors decided that it was better to create this disgraceful precedent than to give their votes to someone else [other than their own party candidate].”

The scene for the standoff was set in March last year, when the general election produced a rainbow coalition led by the centre-right Reform Party alongside the left-leaning Social Democrats and right wing IRL. The Russian-linked Centre Party won the second most votes, but as usual was shunted aside by the rest.

The office of the president of Estonia is largely ceremonial. However, the incumbent Ilves has managed to become a high profile representative of the small Baltic state. He has made the presidential palace a seat of power - particularly in terms of foreign policy - meaning the post has gain in importance for parties struggling to stamp their authority on the fractured political scene.

Ilves has especially been vocal in the context of renewed tensions in Eastern Europe since Russia's conflict with Ukraine launched in 2014. At times of internal political tensions, Ilves has also acted as catalyst for agreement, as was the case during government coalition talks after the election of 2015, which produced a rainbow coalition.