Thursday, June 16, 2011

Improving Estonian Politics

From a Liberal perspective it is hard to be anything other than enthusiastic about Estonia. The laws of the country are generally fair, and the process of government is generally open. The adoption of generally liberal economics has helped propel the country towards becoming one of the richest countries in the world. In many aspects, from health care to the adoption of new technology, the country is dramatically ahead of the the UK. Estonians are often genuinely self critical and therefore look to find ways of improving the way the country and society works. Quite often I have been genuinely stumped when asked what I would change: the fact is that in general things work quite well.

Yet, despite a well functioning democracy, there are two things that I would change.

The first is now quite topical: I would make the President of the Republic directly elected. Why so topical? Well, the first term of office of President Tomas-Henrik Ilves will expire in the autumn. Already, however, it seemed inevitable that he would be re-elected.The reason for this inevitability is more to do with a party-political stitch-up rather than the merits of the President (which are, I should make clear, substantial). The President is currently elected either by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament or if that is not achieved after three ballots, then by a majority in an electoral college consisting of members of the Parliament and representatives of local governments sitting together. Since the restoration of the Republic in 1991, all of the Presidential elections have gone to the electoral college. Both the first President, Lennart Meri and the incumbent, President Ilves have proven to be substantial figures on the world stage, and if the second president, President Ruutel, was perhaps less successful, he was nonetheless well qualified for the office.

Yet the decision as to qualification has been left to the politicians, and this has forces all three Presidents to make compromises with political parties that they have occasionally found uncomfortable. Now the entry of a new candidate, even if he poses little threat to President Ilves, does underline what the system needs to change. Indrek Tarand, MEP has a reputation as a maverick voice of conscience, and partly because of this, he topped the poll as an independent in the last European elections. As an MEP, he has cultivated independent positions completely at odds with the ethos of much of Estonian politics, which is dominated by machine pols. It was therefore something of a surprise when he announced that he would put his name forward for the Presidency as a candidate supported by the Centre Party, which embraces machine politics perhaps more completely than any other party in the Estonian political spectrum. Mr. Tarand's explanation: that there needed to be a contested election for the Presidency is indeed understandable, but it brings home the fact that despite Mr. Ilves's own, undoubted, independence, he too has been forced to make some compromises in order to secure his re-election.

Given the fact that three of the four political parties in the Parliament have already declared their support for President Ilves, even the entry of a potentially popular and effective alternative is unlikely to derail his re-election. Indeed it may not even be Mr. Tarand's intention to unseat President Ilves, who has proven to be both sagacious and effective. However, this surely should be the last time that the party political system is the mediator between the popular will and the office of head of state. President Meri proposed this change to the constitution on his last day in office, and to my mind it is now well overdue.

However direct Presidential elections are not the whole story of reform: in fact there is also a second change that I would make to the way that Estonian politics works. For it is not just in the matter of the choice of the Head of State that party politics needs reform. In both Parliamentary and local elections, parties present a list of candidates to the electorate. Often these include well known and popular names at the top. Yet often these names have no intention of taking the job, if they are elected. The result is that candidates lower down are the ones that actually get to serve- particularly in local government. To my mind this party control means that the voters do not know who they will get as their representatives. I believe that the list should be scrapped and that candidates should be elected by a single transferable vote. Given that the constituencies are already multi-member, this is in fact a relatively minor change: however it would eliminate the practice that a party puts its most popular figures at the top of the list, whose personal popularity then cascades down to the unknowns. Voters should know who will do the job, and it is up to the lesser known figures to introduce themselves to the electorate. The Social Democrats have already committed themselves to the idea that candidates should take their seats if they are elected, to my mind STV goes a bit further in forcing a candidate to engage with the voters.

Estonia, even without these changes, remains an interesting political environment- particularly from a liberal perspective, since both government and opposition are dominated by different Liberal blocs. The quality of debate remains high, and the majority of politicians do genuinely engage with the voters. Yet there are still things that may be advanced, and I hope that the political structure will not fossilize. President Ilves has used his position to spark debate and to challenge some of the political assumptions that he thinks impede the process. Should he- as seems likely- be returned to office I hope that he will continue to do this, but also to promote a wider political debate about the fundamentals of the constitution and the political idea of Estonia.

1 comment:

George said...

Amen, and Amen!