Sunday, September 24, 2006

TH Ilves: An Assessment

Mari-Ann Kelam in Tallinn, Estonia, has forwarded to me an interesting report on Toomas Hendrik Ilves's presidential victory in yesterday's Estonian election. The report is from Monsters and Critics, and I'm republishing it here, as the site seems to be very slow this evening (but see the important copyright notices at the end of the article). Mari-Ann also says that "Ilves brought out Estonian young people, let's hope this interest in politics continues for the Riigikogu (parliament elections in March 2007). Sidelight - Savisaar and Reiljan, the heads of the two parties supporting Ryytel, did not congratulate Ilves."

Tallinn - Estonian politicians voted by a hair-thin majority to elect 52-year-old former Soviet exile Toomas Hendrik Ilves president on Saturday.

Ilves, who was born in Sweden to exiles from Soviet-ruled Estonia and raised in the US, received 174 votes from an electoral college of MPs and local councillors - just one more than the number required for victory.

'It's surprising that Ilves managed to squeak through in the first round - the momentum seemed to have turned in his favour this week, but nobody was sure that we could avoid a repeat vote,' said Andres Kasekamp, professor of Baltic politics at Tartu University.

His opponent, incumbent president Arnold Ruutel, received 162 votes. The result is a major blow for the two centre-left parties which supported him, and which had been lobbying fiercely to gain control of the college.

'(Ruutel's supporters) were sounding desperate this week ... even suggesting that there could be trouble on the streets as a result of actions by Ilves' supporters,' Kasekamp said.

There is still a chance that Ruutel's camp could overturn the decision. Last week the Estonian Electoral Commission decided to reduce the number of voters in the electoral college by two after allegations of procedural irregularities - a decision Ruutel supporters challenged in the Supreme Court.

'In theory, the Supreme Court could nullify the ballot. However, it seems highly unlikely that the Electoral Commission would have acted without very strong justification,' Kasekamp said.

'Ruutel's supporters looked pretty resigned after the vote,' he added. The 174 votes which Ilves received would have been enough for first-round victory even if two extra electors had taken part.

Ilves' victory is likely to be a popular one in Estonia. He has consistently led the field in opinion polls, with his support among ethnic Estonians more than twice as high as Ruutel's.

Ilves, the current vice-president of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, is reckoned the country's most effective diplomat, winning a third of all votes in elections to the European Parliament despite challenges from over 100 other candidates.

His exile background is also an advantage, according to observers.

'Despite participating in Estonian politics for so long, Ilves is seen as bringing a fresh transparency and honesty to the political scene - he's free of corruption and scandals,' Kasekamp said.

'Ilves represents everything that is western and European,' agreed Vello Pettai, professor of political science at Tartu University.

The decision puts an end to a month of political intrigue. According to the Estonian constitution, the president is elected by the country's 101-member parliament.

However, if no candidate receives two-thirds of votes, the choice passes to the electoral college. Parties supporting Ruutel boycotted three parliamentary votes in late August in order to ensure that the vote would be decided in college.

The boycott was fiercely criticised in Estonia's press, where it was seen as an attempt to install a partisan president before parliamentary elections, due in March 2007.

Ilves now becomes the second-youngest head of state in the EU, after the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and the Union's youngest elected president. The oldest is Giorgio Napolitano of Italy, aged 81.

© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur
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