Swiss national and Estonian resident Dario Cavegn addressed the Riigikogu's Constitutional Committee on Monday at an event which marked the centennial of the signing of the original Estonian constitution.
Cavegn spoke about the Swiss model of direct democracy and how it relates to Estonia. Both the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and the Green Party have previously called for the introduction of direct democracy in Estonia. The event was themed around how to increase participation in democracy and there were several speakers.
Cavegn gave his address in Estonian and ERR News has published an English translation below:
Only those who use their freedom remain free
Honored Madam President, Riigikogu speaker, prime minister, committee leader, honored constitutional committee members, ladies and gentlemen.
The speed, decisiveness and clarity of mind with which the fourth Estonian Constitution (dating from 1992-ed.) was drawn up is extraordinary to any observer from the outside, and has since inspired a habit in the Estonian political process that puts a high value on effectiveness and transparency.
This is all the more impressive in the eyes of a Swiss citizen, who is used to a much slower brand of politics.
I was surprised to be invited to speak here today, but took up the invitation because of the way it came into being. I was approached by a member of the Estonian Conservative People's Party, via a member of the Estonian Greens, to speak on a political topic that they both have a vested interest in.
In Switzerland there is a half-humorous, half-serious, but nevertheless well established expression for this kind of thing: We call it an unholy alliance.
I couldn't resist...
Switzerland's modern state isn't much older than the Estonian one. Present-day Swiss politics is dominated by our direct-democratic instruments; if we take the completion of those as the beginning of modern Swiss politics, that would be the year 1891, just 27 years before the [first] Estonian Constitution was drawn up.
I often read that the Swiss people can make laws. Strictly speaking, this isn't true. What we do is give parliament the task to create or change legislation based on a constitutional amendment.
To push a constitutional amendment to a vote, and force parliament to create new legislation, we first need a text that the Federal Chancellery can accept. For example, a condition here, among other requirements, is that the text doesn't transgress international law.
Once that hurdle is passed, we have 18 months to collect 100,000 signatures.
The chancellery has to verify these signatures' authenticity, which is done by sampling and is extremely time-consuming, as we don't have an electronic signature system.
After this, the government has 12 to 18 months to deliberate the amendment and come up with recommendations to parliament and the voters. Parliament then does the same. Both can introduce counter-proposals as well.
If the amendment passes, then the necessary laws are worked out by parliament.
This is the process for the popular initiative in Switzerland.
The second direct democratic instrument is the referendum, of which we have two types. One is mandatory for a set list of constitutional and legislative changes, as Estonia has as well. The other is facultative and allows the people to demand a vote on laws as well as certain parliamentary declarations and international treaties.
Under the facultative referendum, after parliament passes a new law, interest groups have 100 days to collect 50,000 signatures. If they succeed, the law is then put to a vote.
Both the initiative and the referendum are applied to a wide range of topics. A recent favorite of mine is the so-called horned cow initiative, where we were asked to decide whether or not Swiss cows should all have horns.
I chose not to participate because I don't care about cow horns.
Then there are the usual favorites. Same-sex relationships; immigration; law and order, crime and punishment.
But there are also plenty of plainly system-related votes. Since I turned 18, I have voted many times at the national level on matters ranging from VAT, corporate taxation, pensions, questions of credit, budget issues - such as the purchase of new fighter jets - nuclear energy, and so on. If I were to include similar votes at the cantonal and communal level, and also include elections, my tally would be somewhere around 470.
I'm not an expert on any of these topics. I'm not a political or legal scholar. But in the Swiss system - a system which allows me to personally identify with the way the state is run - any citizen could be comfortable standing here and speaking to you about it.
During the short-lived public debate about direct democracy here in Estonia about a year-and-a-half ago, a worry very often expressed was that such a system is open to populist campaigns.
Which it is, of course, and we've had plenty of them.
Meanwhile the country is thriving, and letting the people decide hasn't ruined us.
The reason is that there are plenty of checks in the system. Though the will of the people is certainly binding, it is never directly injected into any code of law. There are restrictions as to how far the changes demanded by any interest group can go.
That is how it is possible that despite a Swiss communist movement, despite a Swiss Nazi movement, despite rampant and occasionally blindly racist and sexist populism in Swiss politics, the system is safe and has not failed.
The most important feature of our constitution, then, is not the people getting what they want, but what this system does to Switzerland's politics.
This is where the facultative referendum is important.
Let's do a quick thought experiment at the example of Rail Baltic. Imagine that a facultative referendum existed here in Estonia. Anti-Rail Baltic activists would have the power to collect the requisite number of signatures to sink any legislation related to the project.
In such a situation, environmentalists, along with whatever other interest groups that might threaten to do the same, need to be included in the project's work right from the start.
This threat of the facultative referendum is the single most important feature of Swiss politics. It forces anyone even considering new legislation to include all of the relevant stakeholders, ideally from the start.
Swiss politics is all about consensus, to the extent that we have neither majority governments nor a prime minister. Instead, we are governed by a permanent grand coalition in which all of the Swiss parliament's biggest parties are represented, and whose members decide matters by simple majority vote.
This has famously produced the kind of stability that is extremely beneficial for the national economy. Consensus rules everything.
Of course, not every political stand-off can be solved this way. Consensus isn't always possible. A matter like your Registered Partnership Act would likely be subject to a referendum in any case, and quite probably be defeated as well.
Mind you, that would only be round one. In a direct democratic system like the Swiss one, you would need nothing more than an egg timer to measure how long it would take for the next advocacy group to start an initiative to introduce gay marriage outright.
The threat of the referendum promotes the inclusion of a broad range of interest groups already during the lawmaking process. And because referendums are binding, the threat is serious.
As a citizen, this means that not only do I get a say with my vote in the referendum, but the powers that be actually are interested to approach and involve me.
This solves the problem of political participation to a large degree. In the last local elections here in Estonia, an attempt was made to involve more people by lowering the voting age. The results were meager at best. I would argue that a facultative referendum and actual political participation, even only at the local level, would do wonders towards the same goal.
It's all a matter of choice. In the Swiss system, someone who can't stand political parties still has the option to vote on issues. Someone who doesn't care about issues can still elect members of parliament. The spectrum is broader.
This does funny things to voter turnout. In the debate here in Estonia about eighteen months ago, Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise wrote that: "The hope that the popular initiative can override the people's feeling of estrangement towards power and get them to decide [for themselves] doesn't need to materialize. Elsewhere, for example in Switzerland, neither the popular initiative nor the popular vote have increased turnout."
This is a counting error. Remember the horned cow initiative. I don't care about it, and would much rather vote on tax. My sister, on the other hand, like plenty of other people, isn't interested in tax at all, but will always have time for animals' rights.
This means that average turnouts below 50 percent don't tell the whole story. Not everybody is interested in all the topics that are voted on. Sure, there will be an overlap between people voting on tax, and people voting on cows. But the total number of people voting within any given year is without a doubt significantly higher than the average, and well above 50 percent.
The same dynamic applies to turnout in elections, which often is below 50 percent as well. You don't have to vote in elections to participate. Our system is a lot more diverse than that.
The most important thing to us as voters is that we're asked in the first place - and the knowledge that if we vote, our vote counts.
This way, the direct democratic instruments begin to act like a pressure valve. Because we know that we are being heard, the number of disgruntled protest voters is permanently low and usually only comes up in connection with particularly sensitive issues.
A typical example for this pressure valve is the "No Minarets" initiative. We famously voted to ban minarets, and we had a lot of criticism for it internationally. What people failed to understand is that we did not vote "No Mosques".
What people understand even less is that we didn't really have any minarets in the first place. The vote became an outlet for fears and frustrations within the population, thankfully altering the building code and not the constitution's provisions on the freedom of religion.
Only those who use their freedom remain free. I don't think it is an accident that the direct involvement of the people to a greater extent was already part of earlier versions of the Estonian constitution. I'm convinced that the Estonian people on the whole, by historic, cultural, pragmatic, but also healthily selfish default, have everything it takes to make direct democracy work.
You actually already have more than we do. Your digital solutions can speed things up where we need years to get to a point. You have a constitutional review chamber on your Supreme Court, capable of curbing any needlessly populist direct-democratic moves; we don't. You're already past the most difficult questions of suffrage, and your state has an almost incredibly small number of past mistakes to correct.
You would be only the second country in the world to introduce a system like this - and teach us how to do it better in the process.
I do hope you'll think about it. In Switzerland, the process of getting from a representative democracy to a partly direct one took 43 years. I trust you'll be faster.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to congratulate you on 100 years of political innovation and inspiration, and applaud you for your determination to keep things working at only the highest level and still improve them further. It has been, and will continue to be, an honor to follow your work. Thank you.
Representatives from all five elected political parties on the committee were in attendance at the Riigikogu, where President Kersti Kaljulaid gave the keynote speech. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center), justice chancellor Ülle Madise and Riigikogu speaker Henn Põlluaas (EKRE) also attended.
Dario Cavegn is the former managing editor of ERR News.
Editor: Andrew Whyte