President gave MPs a glance in the mirror

Meinhard Pulk
, ajakirjanik
President of the Riigikogu Jüri Ratas (Center) threw aside animus with outgoing President Kersti Kaljulaid and thanked the head of state for her foreign policy contribution.
President of the Riigikogu Jüri Ratas (Center) threw aside animus with outgoing President Kersti Kaljulaid and thanked the head of state for her foreign policy contribution. Photo: Tairo Lutter

President Kersti Kaljulaid urged MPs to be more active in her final Riigikogu fall session speech.

The Riigikogu picked up more or less where it left off – the topic of the presidential election – and in stark contrast with the placement of parliamentary forces from the time of the French revolution, with the Social Democrats sitting on the right and the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) on the left.

Harmony between four parliamentary parties that was necessary for electing the president seems to be lingering, as the first speeches of the fall session initially spoke of conciliation. Even former Education Minister Mailis Reps (Center), after what has been a despondent summer, was in visibly high spirits, while some of her colleagues were equally visibly itching to put the ceremonial parts of the opening session behind them.

President of the Riigikogu Jüri Ratas (Center) threw aside animus with outgoing President Kersti Kaljulaid and thanked the head of state for her foreign policy contribution. “Your were a strong contributor on Estonia’s path to the UN Security Council. We took a crucial and historic victory in fierce competition,” Ratas noted, thanking Kaljulaid for her achievements and term in office.

The president reciprocated. “We have in recent months heard a lot of criticism of our parliament, which I believe the Riigikogu has not deserved. This has included criticism of the presidential election that, nevertheless, progressed exactly as it should. You did your work well and did it fast. Our parliamentary state functioned as it should,” Kaljulaid said.

Familiar protest

Not everything was new in the month of September. Just as Kaljulaid will be remembered for leaving the floor during the swearing-in of [EKRE] Minister of IT and Foreign Trade Marti Kuusik, who served for a single day, so too has a parliamentary party boycotting the president’s speeches been unprecedented – EKRE MPs also left the floor before Kaljulaid’s speech on Monday.

EKRE MP Anti Poolamets later said that delegates leaving the Riigikogu hall was a show of protest in the president who has said that she hates EKRE voters, one hundred thousand people, adding that the president’s indignation in the national conservative voter has demeaned the Estonian state and Kaljulaid herself.

Kaljulaid’s own speech became increasingly critical with each new word. More than a few MPs said the president lingered on criticism for too long, even though she might have been on point.

The president described falling levels of public trust in the parliament as troubling, suggesting that MPs often cannot make sense of draft legislation, remain passive in their work and rely too much on officials. For example, as concerns coronavirus measures where Kaljulaid found the Riigikogu should have played a bigger role.

Kaljulaid added that the processing of the state budget bill in the Riigikogu is another telling example of officials knowing better.

The president also made concrete proposals. Agreeing with the Riigikogu speaker, Kaljulaid emphasized the need to review the presidential election system by moving forward the deadline for presenting candidates by a month or two and for a simple majority to be enough for a president to be elected in the Electoral College. "Thirdly, local governments should have greater weight in the Electoral College," Kaljulaid said.

Salary not motivating enough?

Kaljulaid also proposed hiking the salary of MPs, saying that the current salary level (€4,399) is unattractive for many capable people.

Social Democratic Party (SDE) MP Jevgeni Ossinovski said he does not see salaries as an acute problem on Toompea Hill. “Of course, there are people in the private sector who are paid a lot more. But should the parliament or public service in general try to outbid it? Probably not.”

Isamaa MP said that it is a question of context. “Looking at Southeast Estonia and general prosperity, I believe it [MPs’ salary] should reflect how the Estonian people are doing and not run away from us. Besides, I’m not convinced the current salary level is not motivating. I hope that people come to the parliament for other reasons than making money.” Head of the Reform Party group Mart Võrklaev said as much, adding that the reputation of an MP also counts for something. “Whether an MP is just a punching bag or whether they are sometimes also recognized and mentioned favorably.”

While Ossinovski said that Kaljulaid’s proposals for amending the presidential election process coincide with the Social Democrats’, Sibul at least agreed to setting up candidates sooner. Ossinovski said that Riigikogu voting rounds should be abolished, while Võrklaev sees no reason to dial back the parliament’s role. “Why do we trust the parliament to handle a great many matters of statehood but see it as incapable of electing the president?” he asked. “The parliament should elect the president, while a longer campaign period would give time for important topics to be discussed in public and for MPs and groups to formulate their opinions,” Võrklaev explained.