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Estonia: Meri Successor Still Undetermined -- But Does It Matter?

  • Jeremy Bransten

After three ballots, the politically fragmented Estonian parliament has failed to choose a new president to succeed Lennart Meri. The decision will now have to be made by a special assembly, which will gather next month. Will the political deadlock have any impact, and how significant is the president's role in Estonian politics? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports.

Prague, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The deadlock in Estonia's presidential election is a repeat of what happened five years ago when Lennart Meri ran for a second term.

Then, as now, the vote was passed to a special assembly composed of legislators plus local representatives after no candidate managed to garner the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to be elected.

The fact that a figure as formidable and well-known as Meri, who helped lead his country to reclaim its independence, could not get re-elected by parliament led many to ask five years ago whether the electoral system should be changed. Now, parliament's inability to elect a Meri successor has reopened the same debate.

But journalist and commentator Tarmu Tammerk, who heads the Estonian Newspaper Association, tells RFE/RL that he is skeptical the debate will move beyond words:

"The inconclusive vote has prompted calls for an overhaul of the presidential election system altogether. But it's not very clear at all whether the members of parliament will press ahead with this once the president is elected because it's very likely they would then drop the issue, pointing out the complexity of changing the constitution."

Tammerk says two principal options have been floated. Both have their firm opponents in legislative circles:

"The most simple and the most popular is, of course, direct election of the president. But then, immediately, critics point out that the Estonian president does not have wide authority at all. On the contrary, the Estonian president's role is quite limited and it's a ceremonial post, so it would be wrong, critics argue, to have direct elections because then the [president's] role would seem much bigger to people. The constitutional setup of the country could be affected in a negative way."

The opposition Centrist Party has over the past eight years mounted persistent calls to introduce direct presidential elections, but so far to no avail. The idea has been consistently opposed by key members of the governing coalition, who say it would upset Estonia's system of parliamentary democracy. The other proposal would also bypass parliament, engendering strong resistance from many legislators.

"Another option being discussed at the moment is to skip the parliamentary rounds altogether and to have the election immediately in the special electoral assembly, which would include members of parliament and currently its 266 local government representatives, because the parliamentary rounds are not likely to produce results in the future either. So this seems to be quite a waste of time. Again, critics point out that this would belittle the role of parliament."

Which raises the issue of what exactly the president's role should be. Tammerk says one of the consequences of the deadlock in parliament is that it has focused a lot of attention on the presidential succession, making the post appear more important than it ought to be.

In many ways, Meri has been an exceptional leader for exceptional times, a man of international renown and high moral stature, comparable to Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic.

Estonia, which has settled into normalcy over the past few years, no longer requires a savior, nor does the constitution provide for the president to be one. Far from it. Tammerk says:

"It is clear that Lennart Meri has put a lot of flesh on the bones of the Estonian presidential institution. And the institution very much looks like Lennart Meri. But again, most of the serious candidates and most political parties these days in Estonia acknowledge that this time of a 'larger than life' president is over for Estonia because 10 years ago, eight years ago, there was a need to have a very good spokesman for the country abroad, who would help put the country on the European and world map again. But now the president's role in foreign affairs clearly will be diminished."

On the domestic front, too, the president -- constitutionally -- plays little more than a symbolic role. Whoever succeeds Meri will not be expected or empowered to resolve immediate economic and political concerns.

"The president really can't do much about the unemployment in the country or the growing gap between Tallinn and the rest of Estonia. There's a saying in Estonia these days: We have two Estonias and the gap between the two is becoming bigger day by day."

Estonia's future president will have to be a bridge-builder, says Tammerk, whose role will be to bring politicians together behind the scenes so the right synergy can be maintained for continuing reforms.

Opposition candidate and deputy parliament speaker Peeter Kreitzberg is expected to face off against rival Peeter Tulviste -- a local government official from the Pro Patria Union party of Prime Minister Mart Laar -- and possibly two other candidates, when the special electoral assembly convenes on 21 September.

Meri is due to step down on 9 October, but as Tammerk puts it:

"I don't think we would lose anything if we didn't succeed in electing a president on the 21st of September, during the electoral assembly, and there would be a new round that would prove inconclusive. Theoretically speaking, we could very well do without the president altogether. No one will really miss him. People will miss Lennart Meri as a colorful character, who is part of Estonia's independence struggle and the effort to restore independence. But then, he is already a living legend, part of history. And as time goes by, he will remain in history. And I don't think the president can play a big role in Estonia at all, so all the fuss is about nothing."

Ultimately, it may be a measure of how successful Estonia's transition to a functioning European parliamentary democracy has been that its people feel little need to worry about the outcome of the presidential vote.

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