HELSINKI – Estonia is gearing up for an unusual presidential election in parliament. There will be only one candidate in Monday's vote, a situation unprecedented since the Baltic nation regained its independence 30 years ago.
President Kersti Kaljulaid's five-year term expires on Oct. 10, and lawmakers in the 101-seat Riigikogu parliament must elect a new head of state to replace her in the largely ceremonial post.
As no further candidates registered by the late Saturday deadline, the director of the Estonian National Museum, Alar Karis, will be the sole contender. Karis, a former state auditor, is the only one who has managed to get support from the required minimum of 21 lawmakers.
Holding a vote with only one candidate has flummoxed the country, and several politicians have called for a complete overhaul of Estonia's complex presidential election system. Some Estonians have even suggested that the small European nation, where the prime minister holds most political power, should abolish the head of state post altogether.
Jaak Joeruut, a former defense minister and diplomat, said in a recent opinion piece that “elections with one candidate belong to the Soviet era. It is unethical, but, strangely enough, legal.”
Once a Soviet republic, Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million, regained its independence in 1991 and is now a member of both the European Union and NATO.
Had the president been directly elected by the people, the liberal Kaljulaid would be seeking a second term. Estonia’s first female president is reasonably popular among the public. But she enjoys little support from lawmakers, reportedly due to her outspokenness about fellow politicians and government policies.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' Reform Party and the Center Party — which make up Estonia’s center-right coalition government — have endorsed Karis, 63.
Both parties have praised him for his understanding of Estonia’s society and see his academic background — he headed the University of Tartu, Estonia's main academic institution — and work as an auditor as substantial strengths.
Tonis Sarts, an associate professor in comparative politics at Tallinn University, agrees with the assessment but noted that Karis is a novice in foreign policy.
“He is probably one of the most well-prepared candidates considering the domestic policy dimension but he hasn't had any practical experience in foreign policy-making and diplomacy,” Sarts told The Associated Press.
Karis needs a two-thirds majority, or 68 votes, in parliament to be elected in the secret ballot. The governing coalition has 59 votes, and he is seen as likely to gather the support of at least another nine lawmakers from three opposition parties.
The populist right-wing EKRE party has proposed a candidate of its own, but didn't have enough lawmakers to register him. The conservative Fatherland — a small opposition party — said it agrees with Karis on several issues but gave its lawmakers a free hand in the vote.
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats are divided between Kaljulaid and Karis but the party has too few lawmakers and allies to propose the sitting president run for reelection.
Should lawmakers reject Karis on Monday, another two voting rounds are scheduled for Tuesday. If that fails, the election will be transferred to a special 208-member electoral college who would vote on a new head of state in September.
Under Estonia’s constitution, the president's role is mostly representing the nation abroad and acting as a domestic opinion leader. However, the president is also the supreme commander of Estonia’s armed forces, formally appoints government members, signs laws to make them valid and has the power to veto law proposals.