Duties of the President of the Republic

A separate chapter in the constitution is dedicated to the institution of the President. If one reads only the constitution, the situation seems pretty similar first of all to the one in Germany, where the president has quite symbolic duties and inevitably finds himself overshadowed by the Chancellor of State as the head of government. If one goes on the basis of practical political experience, however, the tasks and rights of the President of the Republic in Estonia are by no means so symbolic at all.

The constitution foresees various tasks for the President, both in domestic and foreign policy. In the latter field, the President mostly fulfils traditional representational duties. In addition to the secondment and receiving of diplomats, and signing instruments of ratification of international agreements, the President represents the Estonian state at meetings with leaders of other countries. In this regard, the President’s duties are divided with those of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. It is not typical of parliamentarian states that the President as primarily a representative head of state would assume the role of an active negotiator at significant meetings. In newly independent Estonia, however, the efforts of the President in the international foreign policy arena have been quite remarkable, mostly in shaping the general political climate and introducing Estonia as a small cultural country eager to communicate with others.

The more significant duties of the President are still connected with questions of domestic policy. One of the most important of these is nominating the candidate for Prime Minister. Since the confirmation of the candidate requires a majority of votes in the Riigikogu, the President must inevitably consider the political situation and the will of the powers dominating in parliament. The President is therefore under no obligation to entrust the task of forming the government to the leader of the party that received most votes at the elections – he also has to take into account the real possibilities of forming a coalition in the Riigikogu. As far as ministers are concerned, the constitution stipulates that the President of the Republic appoints ministers as proposed by the Prime Minister. Although on a few occasions the President has not actually wished to appoint a minister, he has had to give in as a result of political pressure and ultimately accept the proposal of the Prime Minister.

The President enjoys a remarkably greater degree of liberty in appointing several other higher officials. In many cases (e.g. Legal Chancellor, Auditor General) he suggests a candidate to the Riigikogu himself. In that case the President has the full right of preliminary selection; only candidates named by him can be appointed. In some cases (e.g. President of the Bank of Estonia) the President appoints the person, but the proposal is put to him by some other institution. The President then has the right to refuse the proposal, and the institution in question must look for another candidate.

The authority of the President in the area of national defence is quite extensive – he is the supreme commander of the national defence. Interpreting this provision, the Supreme Court has found that the commander of national defence cannot only possess symbolic authority, and therefore the executive power should not side-step the President in making decisions regarding national defence. In reality it is quite obvious, however, that the executive power, i.e. the Ministry of Defence, can solve problems more efficiently. It is for this reason that the national defence is in the hands of several different bodies. On the other hand, such fragmentation of power inevitably causes problems – there have, for example, been a number of disagreements between the President and the executive power, regarding the suitability for office of the Commander of the Armed Forces. In the laws that regulate national defense, attempts have been made to push distribution of responsibility closer to the spirit of a parliamentary country that is a member of NATO. To improve the management of national defense, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the President of the Republic, initiated a modification of the constitution that will come into effect if the twelfth Riigikogu votes for it without changing it. In the eleventh Riigikogu, the consensus that would have allowed proceeding on the proposal in a quick manner was not achieved. So another way had to be chosen to change the constitution: modification by two consecutive Riigikogus.

The President’s task of approving laws passed by the Riigikogu has great significance in terms of the state, as does his right not to approve legislation and return it to parliament. If the Riigikogu then votes for a law a second time without amending it, the President can turn to the Supreme Court so that the latter would check whether the law is in accordance with the constitution. This right has been used quite often. The constitution requires that the president use the veto power only when he or she decides that a law passed by the Riigikogu violates the constitution and it is likely that the Constitutional Review Chamber of the Supreme Court will concur with the president’s decision. As a rule, the Riigikogu changes laws based on the opinions of the president; sometimes a law has not been passed after a veto, and in rare cases the president has had to turn to the Supreme Court.

A further significant task of the President is his right to proclaim extraordinary parliamentary elections when the Prime Minister or the government receives a vote of no confidence. In such a situation the President must first of all assess the possibilities for forming a new ruling coalition from amongst the forces represented in the existing Riigikogu before deciding upon extraordinary elections.

The President’s formal domestic functions include, for example, proclaiming laws approved at a referendum, calling elections to the Riigikogu and summoning it for its first session. In the light of such tasks, the President has been characterised as ‘a state notary’ whose formal confirmation gives the operation of the state its final and fixed meaning.

In addition to the tasks of state notary, the President also possesses symbolic power, for instance the independent right of decision in awarding honorary decorations and pardoning prisoners. Although such decisions have a symbolic meaning and are not particularly significant for the welfare of the nation, they can nevertheless evoke considerable reaction within society. To give one example, President Lennart Meri’s decision in early 2001 not to award an honorary decoration to Arnold Rüütel, the former Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR, caused a lot of discontent among the opposition. This was all the more so given that Rüütel was subsequently elected president in the autumn of the same year. The president has the right to take away an honorary decoration from a person when the person has committed a crime or some other act that justifies not receiving an honorary decoration.

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