Who is our best-loved president?

Helen Mihelson
, reporter
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Photo: Eero Vabamägi

The people of Estonia love former president Lennart Meri the best. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who spent his two terms promoting Estonia’s e-success on the international arena, gambled away his popularity in the infamous Ärma farm scandal.

A fresh study ordered by Postimees and BNS and carried out by pollster Kantar Emor reveals that re-independent Estonia’s first president Lennart Meri towers head and shoulders above the competition: he was the president of choice for 64.5 percent of people questioned.

Political observer Ott Lumi pointed out that Meri has always been loved by all important demographics: he is the favorite of both opinion leaders and country folk.

The survey results confirm as much. Meri was the favorite in all demographic groups: young and old, Estonians and non-Estonians, country and city dwellers.

“People were slow to come around to him at first, but once they did, he instantly had authority both in Estonia and abroad,” said survey expert Aivar Voog.

He recalled that Meri was criticized quite often during his first years in office. Most voters had wanted to see Arnold Rüütel elected, and Meri was the candidate who went to rob Rüütel of the position. That is why some people seemed to have taken offense at first.

Meri’s rating initially fell short of what President Kersti Kaljulaid enjoys today for example. However, once people saw how good Meri was at his job, those hurt feelings dissipated.

Meri’s scandals – how he built his house or his association with the KGB – have not stuck in Estonians’ consciousness. “These things cannot be compared to all he has done for Estonia,” Voog said.

In the case of Toomas Hendrik Ilves – seen as the best president by just 3.3 percent of people questioned – both Voog and Lumi believe scandals proved fatal. First and foremost, the Ärma farm scandal that flared up again in the fall of 2016.

“The Ärma saga labeled him (Ilves – ed.) as someone who spent his entire presidency pursuing other agendas. It corroded his image,” Lumi commented.

The observer added that Ilves never wanted to be the people’s president; he was the president of the elite.

Voog said that people tend to care when there are material benefits at play. “The entire thing (Ärma scandal – H. M.) was constantly in the picture, with criticism coming from the media as well as opinion leaders. It has left its mark,” the polling expert said.

Voog is convinced that without the Ärma scandal Ilves could have come in second. Toomas Hendrik Ilves was Estonians’ second favorite president when Postimees asked its readers the same question in 2009.

“I’m not ruling out Ilves’ historical significance bouncing back in the future, but people might not think highly of him after the whole Ärma affair today,” Ott Lumi said.

Ilves is popular among voters of the Reform Party, coming in second behind Meri with a little more than 8 percent of the vote. Support for Ilves came to naught among Center’s voters, while Konstantin Päts managed the same result among Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) supporters.

Around 10 percent of people questioned preferred Arnold Rüütel who became president after Meri. Rüütel’s supporters were more numerous among the elderly, voters of EKRE, and non-Estonians. Konstantin Päts was only slightly more popular than Ilves.

President Kersti Kaljulaid merited the support of 5.8 percent of people after just a year and a half in office. Kaljulaid was the last choice for men but received much higher marks from women.

Voog believes that it takes a few years before a new president is accepted, and that Kaljulaid might manage a better result in such polls in the future. “She has not yet made the kind of emotional mark Meri did,” the expert offered.