Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 35
24 May 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
An Absurd Idea from the Sea
Absurdne Idee Merelt
Mel Huang

An absurd idea came from an unlikely source in the last week: Estonian President Lennart Meri. No, this is not in reference to his idea on restructuring the OSCE mission in Estonia to become a public education centre for youth. This concerns his proposal to change the presidential election system to one using solely an electoral college. It is a rather absurd idea when one examines the overall effect and implications of the proposed change.

The idea itself is not very absurd...

In itself, using an electoral college, a small group of elite electors who choose a President (as is done in the US), is not what makes the idea absurd. Due to the diverse composition of the 101-member Riigikogu (Parliament), the likelihood of a single candidate, even one who is very popular, receiving a super-majority of 67 votes is slim. This is why President Meri suggested that the contest be shifted to an electoral college at the onset.

The current system gives the Riigikogu two chances to elect a President. If the first ballot fails to give one candidate the super-majority, then a run-off is held between the two top candidates. As the requirement is for a super-majority rather than a plain majority (unlike in Latvia, where next month's presidential vote in the Saeima requires a simple majority of 51 votes in the 100-member Parliament), the distribution of seats will likely prevent a successful vote or even a narrowing of the field to just two candidates. The PR system of voting in the parliamentary election, despite a five-percent minimum threshold for representation, still brings together a larger number of parties represented in the Riigikogu. It is difficult enough to find a simple majority already, not to mention a two-thirds super-majority.

In the event of a failure to elect a President in the Riigikogu, the presidential election moves onto an electoral college - formed by members of the Riigikogu and local representatives. The same system is employed, and in case of a failure to gain the super-majority, the process returns to the Riigikogu.

In the hotly-contested presidential election of 1996, it took the full four rounds before the electoral college once again brought Lennart Meri a victory over arch-rival Arnold Ruutel. The vote in the Riigikogu, as predicted, was inconclusive; after public promises of a diminished role, the often intrusive Meri won a decisive victory with the electoral college. This is perhaps one reason for his idea. And no, it is not a bad idea at all.

...but the idea of changing is what's absurd

However, President Meri's attempt to provide "stability" is, in effect, another blow to stability. If the presidential electoral law were changed for the next election in 2001, it would mean that all three presidential elections since the restoration of independence will have been held under radically different systems.

Originally, the President was elected by a public vote, with the parliament serving as the decisive force in a run-off. In 1992, at the same time as the Riigikogu elections, then-Speaker of the Supreme Council (and de facto head of state) Arnold Ruutel came in first among several candidates but failed to gain 50 percent of the popular vote. In the subsequent run-off with former Foreign Minister, Ambassador to Finland and well-known documentary maker Lennart Meri, the centre-right coalition of the newly-elected Riigikogu elected Meri over the left-wing Ruutel.

In order to better regulate the election system, the presidential election law was changed. Instead of giving the public the initial vote and the Riigikogu the job to decide a run-off, the system gave the Riigikogu the task at the onset. But as a safeguard, a victory required a two-thirds super-majority; in event of a failure, the same rules apply in the convening of an electoral college. As documented above, Meri's victory over Ruutel in 1996 was much more difficult: it took two rounds in each the Riigikogu and the electoral college.

So, for the system to be changed again for the 2001 presidential election would reflect poorly on the constitutional stability of Estonia. Of course, those in support of the change claim that it would be an improvement to the constitutional order of the state. However, that was the argument employed for the last change. Frequent change to the electoral system, especially in a young democracy, is fatal. Even for "older" democracies like France, the flip-flopping of the parliamentary election system was sign of the ruling group attempting to custom-make the election to suit its own purposes.

It is not a tragedy to give the current system at least another attempt. Most analysts believe the voting will again go to an electoral college (as there is little hope the current Riigikogu can muster a 67-vote majority for any candidate), as the slate of candidates could be even more diverse than last time. This time, however, there will be no incumbent, as President Meri is barred from running for a third term.

The United States, for example, had and has a faulty presidential election system. After those odd occasions when the candidate winning the public vote and losing the vote by the electoral college system (such as the election of Benjamin Harrison in 1888), the presidential election system was not altered in follow-up anger. Also, the Italian presidential vote earlier this month proved that surprises never cease to appear in a first-round voting success.

So, Estonia should learn from "older" democracies (technically Estonia is an "older" democracy than the Italian Republic and the Fifth French Republic) and not be tempted to change constitutional provisions every time a minor fault appears. The constant amending of these areas which are supposed to be the bedrock of the state in the name of improvement would instead severely weaken that foundation. A quick fix is never the answer, whether it be fiscal discipline or the election of the next Estonian President. This is one idea from President Meri (his name means "sea" in Estonian) that should return to the sea.

Mel Huang, 24 May 1999


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