Sunday, September 24, 2006

New Estonian president

Toomas Hendrik Ilves has been elected as the president of Estonia. He was born in Sweden, in a family of Estonian refugees who left Estonia, escaping from the Soviet regime. He then grew up in USA and returned to Estonia in early 1990s, after it regained independence.

Close to 10% of population of Baltic states became refugees in 1944 and 1945. My father's family, small farmers from Central Latvia, nearly left the country as well, but they changed their mind a few hours before boarding a ship for Sweden. Some of the former refugees and their children came back in 1990s and some of them are very influential in the local politics. All three of the current Baltic presidents (Ilves, Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Valdas Adamkus) are former refugees.

I expect Ilves will be a very good president for Estonia. In Estonian and Latvian political system, the president's main role is to represent the country abroad. (The domestic political power belongs to the prime minister.) After living abroad for 40 years, Ilves knows the world outside Estonia very well. And he did well as the minister of foreign affairs for Estonia in 1990s. During the last years, Vaira Vike-Freiberga was the most internationally active president in the Baltic states and the unofficial spokesperson for the region. In a few months, this role will likely pass to Ilves. (Of course, it depends on whom the Latvians elect as Vike-Freiberga's successor. But how many of our candidates can match Ilves?)

Estonia has a fairly unusual (read: bizarre) election system. First, the parliament votes. If a candidate gets a 2/3 supermajority in the parliament, he/she is elected. (That has never happened so far.) Otherwise, the election goes to the Electoral College, which is composed of all the members of parliament and one representative from each municipal government. (Yes, Tallinn (population 400,000) and Ruhnu (known in Latvian as Ronu sala, population less than 100) both have one representative each. As a result, Electoral College is completely controlled by rural Estonia.)

This system was put in place in early 1990s. I was told that it was designed to prevent a specific person, the ex-communist Arnold Ruutel, from winning the presidency. The designers of the system thought that Ruutel could win a majority in the parliament but not in the Electoral College. That was a miscalculation. In 2001, Ruutel won the Electoral College. (It's amusing to watch how those tricks with electoral system can backfire... Ruutel might have lost a simple majority vote in the parliament in 2001.)

The election went to the Electoral College this time, as well. For a while, Estonian media were trying to guess which members of College will vote which way. Both Ilves and Ruutel camps claimed they had a majority of the Electoral College on their side. At the end, Ilves won, 174-162.

1 comment:

Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for explaining what their electoral college actually is!