Government parties have still not reached agreement on marriage referendum

Invalid ballot paper from the local elections in October 2017: “I want politicians for Estonia who care about their people and don’t stuff their pockets with the people’s money,” writes this protester.
Invalid ballot paper from the local elections in October 2017: “I want politicians for Estonia who care about their people and don’t stuff their pockets with the people’s money,” writes this protester. Source: (ERR/Taavi Eilat)

The coalition did not reach an agreement about the marriage referendum during discussions on Monday. EKRE submitted a proposal but it was not agreed upon.

On Monday, EKRE submitted a proposal with a "yes" or "no" question:  "Are You in support of a proposal to supplement the Estonian Constitution § 27 with the sentence 'Marriage is a lasting union between one man and one woman?"

As it was not agreed upon on Monday, the wording of the question may change and it has not been decided if the referendum (rahvahääletus) will be held alongside the local elections (kohalikud valimised) or before.

Chairman of the Riigikogu's EKRE faction Helle-Moonika Helme told ETV's "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) on Monday the people would be asked for their opinion in order to start changing the constitution.

"It's really a very fundamental question, that's why we want to know what the people think about it. The world is changing so much. No one was asked about the Cohabitation Act and it was pushed through. We are more democratic," she said.

Helme said the wording of the question is not final yet and it is still being discussed. When the election will take place has also not been agreed.

One of the reasons organizing the election and the referendum on the same day is complicated is because two different groups of people are eligible to vote. Only Estonian citizens can vote in a referendum, whereas people with long-term residency and European Union citizens can also vote in local elections.

But EKRE believes the referendum and elections should take place on the same day because: "It's just cheaper and we have to save public money," Helme told AK.

Chairman of the Center Party faction Kersti Sarapuu said: "We in the group have different opinions on this."

Isamaa's chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder said: "There are a number of organizational questions and problems that need to be discussed and many questions answered. Once we have received the answers, we will, of course, be ready to fulfil the coalition agreement."

Chairman of the opposition Reform Party Kaja Kallas said there is a definite procedure for amending the constitution and that a referendum can not ask a question about the constitution.

"If you want to change the constitution, you have to do it in accordance with the constitution. You can't ask a question about the constitution that doesn't really have any consequences," she explained to AK.

Sarapuu said the coalition may reach an agreement on the referendum next week.

A marriage referendum may be held next year alongside the local elections in 2021 at the request of EKRE. When the three coalition parties were in negotiations to form a government in March 2019, EKRE put forward the proposal and it was included in the coalition agreement. It will seek to try and amend the constitution to include a definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.

Same sex marriage is not legal in Estonia and a definition of marriage is already included in the Family Law, but EKRE is still pushing for a referendum.

The estimated costs of organizing the referendum are €1,766,000, ERR reported on Monday.

What does the coalition agreement say?

The coalition agreement agreed upon by the Center Party, Isamaa and EKRE last year states:

"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." (page 30).

The agreement can be read here in English

How can the constitution be amended?

On September 1, ERR News published a translation of 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:

  1. At a referendum;
  2. by two consecutive compositions of the Riigikogu;
  3. or by the Riigikogu in an 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.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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