No. 34




Presidential elections – Expectations and reality

14 December 2016


RiTo No. 34, 2016

  • Rein Toomla

    Rein Toomla

    Teacher, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu

In 2016, the President of Estonia was for the first time elected at extraordinary elections. 25 years ago the authors of the Constitution of Estonia were convinced that they had managed to develop a mechanism pursuant to which the political parties have to cooperate as effectively as they can in order that the candidate would win the support of two thirds of the members of the parliament at the elections in the Riigikogu. If the political parties fail to achieve that, the elections would transfer to the electoral college, a body specially formed for the purpose of electing the President, where the required quota would be smaller, only the majority of the electoral college members who participated in voting. Namely this low quota required in the electoral college gave the authors of the Constitution the assurance that the President would be elected during the regular elections.

20 years ago, when the President of the Republic Election Act that is based on the Constitution was being prepared, things were not so optimistic any more. Now the possibility that the Riigikogu and the electoral college may not always be able to elect the President was foreseen, and the procedure for extraordinary elections was included in the Act. But even then the legislators could not predict that the presidential elections may become problematic.

The Riigikogu has been able to elect the President only once, in 2011; in other elections, the decision was made in the electoral college. However, the results of elections showed that the President was always elected with the minimum number of votes required. The reason for this was not the tough competition between the candidates. The members of the electoral college who were unable to determine their second preference, and put an empty or spoiled ballot paper in the ballot box at the last round of elections, became the decisive force. Pursuant to the legislation in force, such ballot papers participate in the election procedure. The first signs of trouble emerged already in 1996, when there were 50 spoiled ballot papers at the elections in the electoral college. At the next elections, their number was smaller, and this tendency supported the view that there was no need to make any amendments to the Act. But at the elections of 2016, the number of spoiled ballot papers increased to 60, which is 18 percent of the members of the electoral college, and the extraordinary elections became a fact.

Under certain conditions, extraordinary presidential elections are really necessary – for example, when the President decides to resign. However, the regular presidential elections should end with the election of the President. In order to achieve that, the Estonian politicians have to amend the Constitution and the President of the Republic Election Act. The easiest way would be to eliminate spoiled and empty ballot papers from the election process.