Conference discusses possibility of direct democracy in Estonia
Direct democracy was possible and even necessary in Estonia, said historian Jaak Valge at the “Is Estonia Ready for Democracy?” conference at the National Library on Saturday. At the same time, the rules Estonia would introduce in connection with votes needed to be thoroughly discussed.
“Our politics have become estranged from society, very often we don’t feel that the decisions of politicians are our decisions. At the moment our society doesn’t have the possibility to raise the questions that many think are the most important,” said Valge.
He added that there was a number of questions that couldn’t be made subject to a popular vote.
“At the same time, this list can’t be two and a half meters long - with that we’d lose the substance of the idea. It needs to be just long enough. Also, the qualifying threshold would have to be high enough for the group of people starting such an initiative, otherwise it might destabilize the political system.”
Switzerland as a role model
According to historian Kaja Kumer-Haukanõmm, the rules of popular votes would have to be thoroughly discussed. She sees Switzerland as a potential role model. In 168 years, the country voted on 587 bills, on the last four of them last Sunday.
“A popular initiative is first sent to the Federal Chancellery, which checks if it is feasible, realistic, if it’s in conflict with law that supersedes it, like for example human rights, and makes sure that it doesn’t bring harm to the state in material or any other form,” Kumer-Haukaõmm described the Swiss system.
She said that Switzerland’s popular votes generally happened four times a year, and that participation depended on the interest of the population in the topics the votes were on.
Chairwoman of the Riigikogu’s Legal Affairs Committee Heljo Pikhof (SDE) sees potential to improve Estonia's representative democracy by involving civic organizations in the creation of legislation. Voting on single legal paragraphs or questions touching on the rights of minorities, though, would be “pure populism”, Pikhof said.
The conference was organized by SPTK, a foundation with the declared aim to “defend family and tradition.” The foundation’s populist and hard-right-leaning positions would likely profit from a direct-democratic instrument like the initiative, as Switzerland’s experience with its populist Swiss People’s Party shows.