Tõnis Saarts: Why is the marriage referendum needed?

Political scientist Tõnis Saarts.
Political scientist Tõnis Saarts. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

The coalition will have to decide this fall what to do with the referendum set to be held at the same time as local government council elections next year. The fact that a consultative referendum will not change anything right away does not mean the subject matter is unimportant, Tõnis Saarts says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

A referendum to decide whether to define marriage in the constitution as being possible only between a man and a woman or whether to stick with the current phrasing that allows for more tolerant interpretations.

The important thing to know is that the outcome of the referendum will not immediately amend the constitution as the legislator is free to consider the results of consultative referendums just as it is free to ignore them.

Looking at the situation today, the latter possibility seems more likely. Even if the people support changing the constitution, it is highly doubtful two-thirds of the current Riigikogu would support such an amendment.

Important nonetheless

The fact that a consultative referendum won't necessarily change anything right away does not make it unimportant. It is likely that the referendum will take up a lot of airtime meant for local elections and ensure its pioneer, the Conservative People's Party (EKRE), a lot of attention and amplification.

This is clearly a problem for EKRE's competitors, especially its coalition partners. Because holding the referendum is included in the coalition agreement, Isamaa and the Center Party will likely not be able to get out of it without dismantling the coalition. This means that adaptation is in order instead.

Center and Isamaa have two options, broadly speaking. They can either refrain from getting involved and allow EKRE to have its referendum or raise parallel topics and compete with the national conservatives on their own turf so to speak.

The first option would make sense should Isamaa and Center be fairly confident in their ability to advertise their agendas in the election situation despite EKRE's referendum. It is probably held likely that the post-coronavirus economic crisis will take precedent over more emotional marriage-related topics by the time of elections.

However, should the other ruling parties doubt their campaigning proficiency in terms of competing with the EKRE referendum, the option to play ball will be chosen instead.

Topics put up for referendum should be proportional to the question EKRE seeks to ask – have to do with the constitution or have social significance. I'm sure inspiration could be found from the recent referendum in Russia.

Why couldn't the Center Party suggest including pension hikes in the constitution – a perfectly good idea, looking at their voter base and public communication. Or why couldn't Isamaa demand the constitution include a sentence along the lines of: "Children are our future and need comprehensive support!"? Dare you say you stand opposed to the well-being of the elderly and a bright future for children? I don't think so…

Black and white questions needed

Jokes aside, matters put up for referendum need to be black and white, able to mobilize and polarize voters. Only questions that meet these criteria could realistically compete with EKRE's marriage campaign. I would speculate and offer up two possible topics: direct presidential elections and the question of the study language of Russian schools.

The first could be just what the doctor ordered for Center and constitute good timing with presidential elections to take place before local elections, with how Estonians should elect their president still very much a hot topic in society.

Because EKRE have voiced support for direct elections, it would place them in an awkward position in terms of which topic to emphasize in their campaign. The downside of opting for this topic is the fact that it's not very polarizing, with various surveys suggesting 80-90 percent of people are in favor of direct presidential elections.

Going after the study language in Russian schools would fit the bill for Isamaa and make it possible to hijack opposition leader the Reform Party's favorite topic. A referendum on education would also save Center from having to figure out a way to bring Russian voters to the ballot boxes on election day.

The downside is the risk of rapidly switching Russian schools to teaching in Estonian being the outcome of the referendum. However, vague phrasing and an even vaguer temporal outlook would likely solve that also for Center…

And this brings us to a far more fundamental question: why do we need such referendums at all? We know that the current Riigikogu will not be able to agree on changing the definition of marriage or on presidential direct elections. Just as we know that the current coalition will not be switching Russian schools to Estonian study in expedited procedure.

Is the planned referendum merely a campaign tool, an attempt to defeat the people's expectations or the first promising sapling of direct democracy? Every voter must find their own answer.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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