Estonian presidential rivals in "clash of eras" By Ben Nimmo

Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Thursday September 14, 2006

Tallinn- The leading contenders in Estonia's forthcoming presidential election reveal a "clash of eras" within the Baltic state's society, experts agreed on Thursday. The long-running election process, due to culminate on September 23, pits the 78-year-old incumbent, Arnold Ruutel, against 52-year- old MEP Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former foreign minister.

"It's a clash of eras between those looking back into the past and those looking forward," Vello Pettai, head of political science at Tartu University, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

"They couldn't be more different - it's like night and day," added Andres Kasekamp, professor of Baltic politics at Tartu University.

Ruutel is the former chairman of the Estonian Supreme Soviet. As such, he is seen as understanding the plight of those Estonian residents who suffered during the collapse of communism, and his support is greatest among the poor and the Russian minority.

Ilves, who was born in Sweden to Estonian refugees, was raised in the USA and moved to Estonia when the USSR fell. He is by far Estonia's most popular foreign representative, but is accused of not understanding those whom the transition from communism left behind.

"Some see Ilves' emigre background as alienating. (Former president Lennart) Meri loved foreign policy, but he could walk into any village in Estonia and talk with the people there; Ilves would find this more challenging," Pettai said.

Ruutel unveiled his election platform on Monday. It contained numerous references to domestic social issues, but remained vague on foreign policy matters, calling on Estonia to "ensure the safety of the planet," Baltic News Service BNS reported.

Ilves, who is to face Ruutel in three debates over the next ten days, has not yet unveiled his platform, but is expected to focus far more on foreign policy - his particular strength.

"Ilves' trump card is foreign policy. Ruutel doesn't speak English and he's a former communist, so many people see him as an embarrassment internationally," Kasekamp said.

However, both platforms and debates are widely seen as secondary to the main election business, which is party manoeuvring. According to Estonia's constitution, the president is elected in parliament.

If MPs cannot agree on a president, the choice falls to an electoral college of 101 MPs plus 246 representatives of local government. In practice, these are controlled by the same parties as sit in parliament, putting the president's fate in party hands.

The Riigikogu - Estonia's parliament - voted on the president three times on August 28-29. On each occasion, the voting was boycotted by two parties supporting Ruutel, who held just enough seats to ensure that no candidate would succeed.

Since the elections in parliament failed, attention has focused on the choice of representatives to the electoral college, with both sides attempting to manoeuvre "their" supporters into it and claiming to control a majority of college members.

The final decision will rest with those members themselves, however. Voting on the day will be carried out by secret ballot, leaving room for surprises on both sides.

The election is due to be held on 23 September, with a simple majority (174 votes) enough for victory.

© 2006 DPA - Deutsche Presse-Agenteur