Presidential Elections

Symbolic heads of states in different countries can come to power in various ways, starting with monarchs who inherit their power, to presidents directly elected by people. In parliamentarian countries like Estonia the most commonly used method is for the Head of State to be elected by parliament or a special electoral body. In Estonia the elections are divided between parliament and the electoral body. Only the order of electing the first president in the newly independent Estonia in 1992 was different – people could voice their opinion first, but since no candidate received more than 50% of the votes, the President was elected by Riigikogu.

At presidential elections, occurring regularly every 5 years, the Riigikogu has the first right to vote. If 2/3 of the Riigikogu members cast their vote for one candidate, the elections are over, and the new head of state determined for the next term of office. Gathering 2/3 of votes, however, requires a broad consensus – the representatives of both the candidate and the opposition must approve of the candidate. It is therefore considered unlikely that the President can actually get elected during the three election rounds in the Riigikogu. The electoral body thus holds considerable importance, by getting to elect the President in case the Riigikogu fails to do so.

Besides all members of the Riigikogu, representatives of local government are also included in the electoral body. This is a kind of symbolic body of people representing the entire Estonian population, because permanent residents who do not possess Estonian citizenship can participate in the election of local government representatives (through the local council (volikogu) elections). Smaller local governments are represented in the electoral body by a disproportionately large number, which makes their role quite significant. It is the support of precisely these smaller local governments that could have been decisive in the 2001 presidential elections when Arnold Rüütel, who enjoys popularity in rural areas with smaller local governments, became the President of Estonia. In 2006 the National Electoral Committee elected Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the opposing candidate of Arnold Rüütel, the sitting president, by a narrow majority.

New candidates can be presented in the electoral body, even those who did not participate in the Riigikogu elections. The candidate that receives over half of the total votes cast is elected. If the first electoral round yields no result, a second round is organised, in which the 2 candidates who received the most votes in the first round now compete.

Critics of the existing procedure for presidential elections claim that the people are not sufficiently involved. Direct elections would certainly afford ordinary citizens a greater right to decide. However, the still prevailing view is that entrusting the election of the President – a Head of State who has but symbolic authority - to the people would pose a kind of threat. Relying on the people’s mandate, the President of the Republic might start to demand additional rights not determined in the constitution. Thus, in order to avoid the President becoming an active politician, he is stripped of the opportunity to appeal to the will of the people on the basis of direct election.

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