Coalition agrees marriage referendum will take place in spring

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Jüri Ratas, Mart Helme and Helir-Valdor Seeder in 2019 after finalizing the coalition agreement.
Jüri Ratas, Mart Helme and Helir-Valdor Seeder in 2019 after finalizing the coalition agreement. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

The coalition parties have agreed to hold a planned marriage referendum in the spring, instead of in November 2021, which would have coincided with local government elections after several days of crisis discussions.

A referendum on the concept of marriage as a matter of state life is planned to be held in spring 2021 based on principles set out in a joint statement agreed by the coalition parties on Thursday. This will take place in accordance with the laws and constitutional values ​​in force in the Republic of Estonia. 

The referendum is sponsored by the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and will pose a question on whether or not marriage should be defined in the constitution as being between one man and one woman.

Postponing the referendum is EKRE's biggest concession to its coalition partners to date, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.

The Center Party, EKRE and the Isamaa adopted a joint statement on Thursday, emphasizing that the Constitution must not discriminate against anyone on the basis of nationality, race, sex, language, religion, political or other beliefs, as well as property and social status or other circumstances. 

The joint statement sets out the conditions for conducting the referendum.

"The referendum can only be held in a search for common ground, peacefully and without provoking any group within society. We will not allow any person to be degraded or attacked," the party leaders said in a statement.

"The governing coalition is unequivocally opposed to inciting hatred. We want to campaign focusing on substantive arguments and worldviews, avoiding offensive and threatening rhetoric and behavior."

The parties also referred to a clause in the constitution which states everyone has the right to freely disseminate ideas, opinions and beliefs. This right ends where other people's rights and freedoms, their health, their honor and their good name begin.

EKRE chairman Martin Helme said at a press conference on Thursday that as a result of the crisis, the coalition has learned a lot and has emerged stronger than before.

"I have never had any doubt that today's coalition with today's combination of parties is the best choice for Estonia," Helme said, adding that it is not worth listening to the opposition parties' attacks.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) agreed that the current coalition format is the best for Estonia and added: "We can actually make Estonian life and the lives of the Estonian people better".

Isamaa chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder said he did not know if the coalition had emerged stronger from the crisis, but it is certainly wiser.

Leader of the opposition Reform Party Kaja Kallas said if Mart Helme continues as minister then EKRE had escaped without suffering any consequences.

"The referendum on the rights of minorities and the government's declaration on non-discrimination and protection of human dignity do not coincide," she said. "Today's government statement is extremely cynical given what lies ahead. The government crisis may be over, but the crisis of values ​​is ongoing."

The government reached an agreement on Thursday after several days of crisis talks.

The crisis arose after Minister of the Interior Mart Helme (EKRE) gave an interview to German media outlet Deutsche Welle's Russian service, published on Friday, in which he said gay people should move to Sweden, where laws are more lenient than in Estonia.  

Members of the other coalition parties, Isamaa and Center, said Helme's views go against the constitution, which states people shall not be discriminated against based on race, gender or sexuality. Opposition party leaders called for him to resign. President Kersti Kaljulaid called his views "simply revolting".

Martin Helme said asking Mart Helme to resign was out of the question. Mart Helme said the party was willing to withdraw from the coalition if a solution could not be found.

The referendum was written into the coalition agreement, which was drawn up in March 2019, as a compromise between the three parties and was scheduled to be held alongside the local elections in November 2021.

EKRE had originally wanted to repeal the Registered Partnership Act, which allows all couples to register their civil partnership in law and was introduced in 2015.

Holding the two votes at the same time drew criticism from several public figures including the mayor of Tallinn and chancellor of justice. They said it would distract voters from local issues and would create confusion as not everyone can vote in both elections.

An exact date for the proposed referendum has not been announced yet.

Editor's note: This article was updated to add comments from Jüri Ratas, Martin Helme, Helir-Valdor Seeder and Kaja Kallas.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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