Estonia is a parliamentary republic in which the President is a ceremonial figurehead with no executive power. The President is obliged to suspend their membership in any political party for the term in office. Upon assuming office, the authority and duties of the President in all other elected or appointed offices terminate automatically. These measures should theoretically help the President to function in a more independent and impartial manner.
The President is elected by the Riigikogu or a special electoral body for a five-year term. The electoral body is convened in case no candidate secures a two-thirds supermajority in the Riigikogu after three rounds of balloting. The electoral body, which consists of all members of the Riigikogu and elected representatives of all local self-governments (at least one representative per each municipality, but not more than 10 representatives depending on the number of citizens with voting rights residing in the municipality), elects the president, choosing between the two candidates with the largest percentage of votes.
The President holds office for five years. They can be reelected any number of times, but not more than twice consecutively.
The authors of the first Estonian constitution, with memories of the Russian emperors' abuses of power, tried to avoid concentrating too much power in one person's hands by all means possible. This eventually led to a creation of an ultra-parliamentary system. The power of the Parliament (Riigikogu) was practically unlimited. Until 1934, the nominal head of state was the State Elder, (riigivanem), who also served as de jure chairman of the cabinet—officially known as "the Government." However, he could not play a balancing role in the event of conflict between the Parliament and the Government. The State Elder and the Government were completely dependent on the Parliament and could be sacked by it at any time. The functions that are usually vested on a president in parliamentary systems were divided among the speaker of the Riigikogu, the State Elder and the Government.
Estonia's constitution was amended in 1933, instituting a strongly presidential system. The head of state, according to the new constitution, was also called the State Elder. However, it never came into effect as a result of Konstantin Päts's self-coup in 1934. In 1938, another constitution was enacted, and the head of state's title was changed to "President of the Republic." He was given very broad executive power, though he was somewhat less powerful than the State Elder of the 1933 constitution. Konstantin Päts became the first person to bear this title. His term was to last for six years.
Within days after the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940, Päts was forced to appoint a Communist-dominated puppet government headed by Johannes Vares, following the arrival of demonstrators accompanied by Red Army troops with armored vehicles to the Presidential palace. The Vares government had actually been chosen by Soviet official Andrei Zhdanov. Following the sham elections in July, Päts was dismissed from office. Later in July Päts, along with his son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons, was deported to Ufa in Russia.
According to the 1938 constitution, if the President was ever incapacitated or was otherwise unable to carry out his functions, his duties were assumed by the Prime Minister under the title "Prime Minister in duties of the President." In accordance with this provision, Vares took over the functions of the president in order to give legal sanction to the formal annexation of Estonia by the Soviet Union in August. However, during times of war or incapacitation lasting longer than six months, the constitution provides for the election of an acting President by the Electoral Council. The Electoral Council met in secret on 20 April 1944, and determined that the appointment of Vares as Prime Minister in 1940 was unlawful according to the 1938 constitution. The Council elected Jüri Uluots as Acting President on 21 April. Uluots appointed Otto Tief as Prime Minister. Tief was subsequently arrested by the re-occupying Soviet forces in September.
In September 1944, Uluots and the surviving members of the Tief government escaped to Sweden. The day before Uluots died in January 1945, a successor, August Rei, was named to assume the position of acting President. Following Rei's death in 1963, the role passed to Aleksander Warma, then to Tõnis Kint in 1971, then to Heinrich Mark in 1990. In October 1992, Mark handed over his credentials to the newly elected President of the restored republic, Lennart Meri.
After Estonia regained independence, a new constitution was adopted that was based on a mixture of the 1920 and 1938 documents. During the drafting of the new constitution, it was initially planned to use the older, more traditional title, State Elder, for the head of state. However, the more modern term president was eventually chosen after public consultations. Five presidential elections have taken place (in 1992, 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011). In the first four elections parliament failed to choose the President and the election passed to the electoral assembly. Lennart Meri was elected in 1992 (this election, unlike later ones, had a public round) and re-elected in 1996, defeating Arnold Rüütel both times. Rüütel himself became the next President in 2001. In 2006, Toomas Hendrik Ilves won the election and he was reelected by the parliament in 2011. Kersti Kaljulaid was elected President in 2016.
The President of the Republic of Estonia:
- acts as the highest representative of state in international affairs (this task includes signing international treaties preliminarily approved by the Government). In exceptional circumstances the President may represent Estonia in the European Council instead of the Prime Minister of Estonia;
- appoints and recalls, upon proposal of the Government, the diplomatic representatives of the Republic of Estonia to foreign states and international organizations; receives the credentials of foreign diplomatic agents accredited to Estonia;
- declares regular elections of the Riigikogu (the parliament of Estonia) and, pursuant to respective provisions of the Constitution, its extraordinary elections. Extraordinary elections can be declared by the President at four occasions: if the Riigikogu turns out to be unable to pass the annual State Budget Act, if the Riigikogu fails to obtain the nation's approval on a referendum, if the Riigikogu fails to elect the Prime Minister after it receives the opportunity (at those three occasions announcing extraordinary elections is obligatory and the President simply acts as the "highest notary" of the state) or if the Riigikogu passes a censure motion against the Government, and the Government, in its turn, requests the President to consider announcing extraordinary elections (in this case the President may, however, say "no", if he (or she) founds organizing extraordinary elections unnecessary or unreasonable for whatever reason);
- convenes the new membership of the Riigikogu and opens its first session;
- proposes to the Chairman of the Riigikogu to convene an extraordinary session of the Riigikogu (in case of necessity);
- promulgates laws and signs the instruments of ratification. The President may refuse to promulgate a bill into law within 14 days after its receipt (it is mostly done only if the President finds it contrary to the Constitution of Estonia). In this case the President returns the bill to the Riigikogu with a motivation of his (or her) decision. When that happens, the Riigikogu may reconsider and amend the bill according to remarks of the President, drop the matter, or pass the bill without any changes for a second time. When Riigikogu takes the third option, the President may not simply refuse to sign the bill into law anymore, but is obliged to promulgate it or, if he or she still believes it to be unconstitutional, to ask Riigikohus (the Supreme Court) to rule on its constitutionality. If Riigikohus finds no violation of constitution, the President must sign the bill into law.
- may initiate amendment of the Constitution. Until now this right has been used at two occasions only. President Lennart Meri proposed to introduce direct elections of the President and to found a Constitutional Court on the last day of his stay in office. This proposal did not find support within the walls of the Parliament. President Toomas-Hendrik Ilves proposed to remove mentioning the institution of the Commander and the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Forces from the Constitution, so that he or she could be appointed by the Government, and not by Riigikogu. The respective amendment was finally approved by Riigikogu on 13 April 2011 and entered into force on 22 July 2011 ;
- after appropriate consultations with the parliamentary fractions nominates the candidate for the post of the Prime Minister (who is normally the leader of the parliamentary coalition or the largest party in Riigikogu), who has to go through an approval vote in the parliament. If the candidate, nominated by the President, fails to obtain the parliamentary approval or finds himself to be incapable of forming the Government, the President may nominate another candidate. If the second candidate also fails to obtain the approval of the Parliament or if the President refuses to nominate the second candidate, the right to nominate the Prime-Minister is transferred to Riigikogu;
- on the proposal of the Prime-Minister formally appoints to office and dismisses members of the Government, whereas the Prime-Minister's proposal is binding for the President. The President may not refuse to appoint or dismiss a minister, should the Prime-Minister make a respective proposal. So the President's role is virtually limited to a formal signing of the respective documents;
- nominates the Chairman of the Supreme Court, the chairman of the boardof the Bank of Estonia, the Auditor General and the Chancellor of Justice. The President may, theoretically, nominate any candidate at his or her discretion. However, the traditions of a parliamentary republic suppose that the President organizes respective consultations with the parliamentary fractions and proposes only such a candidate that will be able to secure the support of Riigikogu, for all of those officers must pass through an approval vote in the parliament before they can assume their office;
- upon proposal of the Board of the Bank of Estonia, appoints to office the President of the Bank of Estonia. The President may refuse to accept the proposal and demand for another candidate (theoretically for an unlimited number of times). This option was previously exercised by President Lennart Meri.
- upon proposal of the Supreme Court, appoints judges (judges appointed by the President may be taken to legal responsibility only with the President's consent);
- confers state decorations, military and diplomatic ranks;
- is the Supreme Commander of the National Defense Forces of Estonia (in reality, this function is usually considered largely ceremonial and symbolic);
- makes proposals to the Riigikogu to declare martial law, to order mobilization and demobilization and to declare a state of emergency;
- declares martial law in case of attack on Estonia and orders mobilization;
- acts as the head of the State Defense Council, which is an advising body consisting of the President, the Prime Minister, the speaker of Riigikogu, the chairman of the Riigikogu commissions for state defense and foreign affairs, minister of foreign affairs, minister of defense, finance minister, minister of internal affairs, minister of justice and commander of defense forces of Estonia;
- by way of clemency, releases or grants commutation to convicted offenders at their request;
- initiates the bringing of criminal charges against the Chancellor of Justice.
Unlike his or her counterparts in other parliamentary republics, the President is not even the nominal chief executive. Rather, the Constitution explicitly vests executive power in the Government.
Presidents of Estonia
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d. 18 January 1956, Burashevo, Kalinin Oblast, USSR1938 – I round – elected by the parliament and municipal appointees as the only candidate with 219 of 238 votes (92.0%).2Lennart Meri6 October 19928 October 2001Pro Patria National Coalitionb. 29 March 1929, Tallinn
d. 14 March 2006, Tallinn1992 – II round – elected by the parliament with 59 of 101 votes (58.4%).
1996 – V round – elected by the parliament and municipal appointees with 196 of 372 votes (52.7%).3Arnold Rüütel8 October 20019 October 2006People's Union of Estoniab. 10 May 1928, Laimjala Parish, Saare County2001 – V round – elected by the parliament and municipal appointees with 186 of 366 votes (50.8%).4Toomas Hendrik Ilves9 October 200610 October 2016Social Democratic Partyb. 26 December 1953, Stockholm, Sweden2006 – IV round – elected by the parliament and municipal appointees with 174 of 345 votes (50.4%).
2011 – I round – elected by the parliament with 73 of 101 votes (72.3%).5Kersti Kaljulaid10 October 2016IncumbentIndependentb. 30 December 1969, Tartu2016 – VI round – elected by the parliament with 81 of 98 votes (80%).
Living former presidents
There are two living former Estonian presidents: