Presidential elections amendment doubtful

PHOTO: Erik Prozes

A year and a half separate us from the dragged-out previous presidential election, with no fundamental change in the election procedure on the horizon. At least during the time of the current composition of the Riigikogu. The procedure of constitutional amendments seriously reduces the likelihood of it ever happening.

The impulse was delivered immediately after the presidential election in the fall of 2016 when the Riigikogu Council of Elders, made up of members of the board and faction chairs, made it a matter of the heart under Chairman of the Riigikogu Eiki Nestor (SDE). It was the council that proposed Kersti Kaljulaid’s candidacy in 2016.

The initial eagerness with which the matter was pursued due to mounting frustration with the system in society was soon cooled by Estonia’s change of government that disrupted all political processes.

At first, it was said election procedure can be changed just by amending the Elections Act. By obligating the electoral college to elect the president no matter what – a simple majority would be enough in the last two rounds. Nestor found the option impossible.

A coalition workgroup then tasked the justice ministry with coming up with a solution. Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu (IRL) sent the finished product to the Riigikogu a few weeks before local elections.

“It was no ordinary bill, but a justice minister’s letter to the parliament. That is why I assembled the Council of Elders that formed a workgroup to discuss the matter,” Nestor explained.

While the working group has no shortage of ideas, hope that procedures could be carried out before the time of the current Riigikogu ends is slim. There is no single prevailing idea nor enough time.

The most realistic option for amending the Constitution would be to pass a bill with 51 votes and have the next composition of the Riigikogu do the same.

The first and second reading of the Constitution must not be more than three months apart, while the third must take place within a month from the second. Member of the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee Mart Nutt (IRL) is not hopeful. “I dare speculate the current Riigikogu will not get as far as the constitutional amendment. It would require a year and great consensus. I don’t see it right now,” he said.

Member of the committee Arto Aas (Reform) characterized Reinsalu’s ideas as fantasy. “It included all kinds of peculiar ideas. We discussed the matter with Nestor a few weeks ago, and the only thing that was discussed were changes to the electoral college,” the politician said.

Aas was pointing to another change in the election procedure connected to the administrative reform. Because the number of local governments in Estonia fell to 79, the next electoral college would only have 208 members – 107 local government electors and 101 MPs. This is prescribed by the Elections Act that can be amended in general procedure and would require 51 votes.

Administrative changes are also up to the Council of Elders’ workgroup. It is hoped the latter change will be effected during the time of the current Riigikogu. The main point of argument is whether the college should have two or three electors per MP.

“One option is not to amend the law at all. Another is to have the same balance we had last time (335 total members made up of 101 MPs and 224 local electors – ed.). The third option is to alter the balance,” Nutt said.

Aas said that the plan includes other minor changes as concerns deadlines and phrasing. “For us, the most important thing is to have sensible deadlines for setting up candidates between rounds of voting. Then we could have a meaningful debate,” he explained.