The coalition is preparing to hold a marriage referendum at the same time as the local elections next year but does not currently have enough votes to amend the constitution, speaker of the Riigikogu Henn Põlluaas (EKRE) said on Wednesday.
Põlluaas was speaking alongside Social Democratic (SDE) MP Raimond Kaljulaid on ERR's web broadcast "Otse uudistemajast". EKRE is pushing for the referendum to take place in November 2021, while SDE is against the idea. The referendum will seek to define marriage as between a man and a woman in the constitution.
Kaljulaid said: "The fact that we are finding time and spending government time today to deal with a referendum that does not need to be held is not the most sensible use of time."
Põlluaas said the wording of the question of the planned referendum has not been agreed and it will become clear during discussions in the Riigikogu.
Critics have argued EKRE is pushing for this referendum to take place at the same time as local elections to include it in their local election campaign. Põlluaas said: "This is a completely timeless issue, we have highlighted it before. It has been agreed in the coalition a long time ago. I am sure that this referendum will be very successful."
Kaljulaid said: "I would say that in this referendum today, the question is whether or not to do it. It is not yet certain today, it is likely, but it is not yet certain. The question is what are we spending time on, what are we contributing to Estonia?"
Kaljulaid would like to talk only about local issues in the local elections and does not see the possibility of holding a referendum at the same time. He said there should be a focus on issues such as the VAT difference on children's goods and the safety net for the elderly.
"We are likely to face a deep economic crisis, many people will lose their jobs, their incomes," he said.
Põlluaas said discussing one topic does not mean ignoring others.
Not enough coalition votes to amend the Constitution
Põlluaas said the planned referendum will be held on the same principles as previous referendums.
In his opinion, it is reasonable to hold a referendum at the same time as the local election because will already be voting and it saves the government money.
Põlluaas said the results of the referendum give all parties an indication of the will of the people, on which everyone should follow, even those who have a different opinion.
From there, it is possible to go to the process of amending the Constitution, which takes a long time and requires a majority of votes. Põlluaas said the coalition does not currently have the majority required to amend the constitution.
Kaljulaid pointed out that in the opinion of EKRE, the current opposition caused a lot of confusion with the adoption of the Cohabitation Act, but now they are creating a similar situation for holding a referendum.
Kaljulaid said amending the constitution is difficult precisely because it cannot be exploited by populists. "Changing the constitution is something you have to measure nine times before you go to do it."
Põlluaas noted that there is currently no fear of the referendum being canceled due to coalition partners. "Well, I have not seen any indication from the Isamaa and the Center Party that envisages or allows such steps. We have agreed from the beginning, we will implement the agreement. Our partners will behave as gentlemen as they have shaken hands."
The agreement was made during coalition negotiations last spring between Center, Isamaa and EKRE. It is mentioned on page 30 and says:
"Among other national issues, we will conduct a referendum on the proposal to amend the Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The vote on this issue will be implemented in 2021, concurrently with the elections of municipal councils."
How can the constitution be amended?
Yesterday ERR News published an opinion article from Reform Party chairman Kaja Kallas which includes an explanation of how the constitution can be amended, which is republished below:
"First of all, there are three ways to amend the Constitution:
- At a referendum;
- by two consecutive compositions of the Riigikogu;
- or by the Riigikogu in expedited process.
"The latter needs a majority of four-fifths to be initiated and a two-thirds majority to pass.
"If a constitutional amendment is put up for referendum and fails, the president has no choice but to declare extraordinary elections. The coalition aims to outsmart the Constitution by putting the amendment up for referendum as a miscellaneous national issue.
"This is unconstitutional as the procedure for a constitutional amendment is provided by the Constitution alongside the possible consequences of such a referendum.
"Secondly, to put a constitutional amendment up for referendum, a three-fifths majority in the Riigikogu is required. Therefore, a constitutional amendment cannot be put up for referendum with just the coalition's votes as it would require support from 61 delegates.
"Thirdly, tying such a referendum to local government council elections would cause a rift among voters because while referendums are open only to citizens, all residents can participate in local elections."
The legal text can also be read in English in the Estonian constitution, chapter XV.
Editor: Helen Wright