Toomas Sildam: Common ground hard to find regarding marriage referendum

Martin Helme, Jüri Ratas, Helir-Valdor Seeder at the signing of a joint declaration.
Martin Helme, Jüri Ratas, Helir-Valdor Seeder at the signing of a joint declaration. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Despite promises by chairmen of coalition parties, the campaign leading up to the marriage referendum will be anything but a search for common ground because there simply isn't any to be found in this matter, journalist Toomas Sildam writes.

The most important agreement to follow a week of government infighting – next to heads of coalition forces promising to treat all Estonian people with respect – was moving the planned referendum on whether marriage should be defined as being between a man and a woman up to spring.

The initial plan as outlined in the coalition agreement of the Center Party, Conservative People's Party (EKRE) and Isamaa was to hold the referendum simultaneously with local government council elections in the fall of 2021.

Toward the beginning of the now concluded government conflict, Center and Isamaa tried to put pressure on EKRE for it to drop its referendum plan. The national conservatives did not bend and the ensuing compromise saw the referendum date moved up – to April or May next year.

Of course, it remains unclear whether the referendum will take place. A referendum requires a constitutionally sound question and a Riigikogu decision, while several Center Party and Isamaa people remain against it. Will they find the courage to vote accordingly when the time comes? Perhaps, perhaps not. But party discipline will likely dissipate should EKRE politicians succeed in insulting even more people after the party's Minister of the Interior Mart Helme told Deutsche Welle in an interview that he looks upon homosexual people "unfavorably indeed."

Let us presume the referendum will go ahead and repeat the words of former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Rait Maruste: "Referendums are not used to decide the rights and freedoms of minorities in modern European democracies where people are held to be equal and treated as such. It is fundamentally wrong and discriminatory in advance when a majority that is in a position of power (greater numbers) makes a decision regarding a minority without leaving it any chance for protection or proportional counteraction."

Heads of the ruling parties Jüri Ratas, Martin Helme and Helir-Valdor Seeder promised in their joint declaration from Thursday to hold the referendum peacefully, to avoid inflammatory and insulting rhetoric and look for common ground. However, the campaign leading up the referendum will be anything but a search for common ground as there simply isn't any in this highly polarizing matter. We have people who believe only a man and woman can get married on one side of the divide and those who would give that right also to same-sex couples on the other.

Because a referendum does not require a quorum to succeed, the "every vote counts" principle means that both sides will try to bring out as many of their people as possible. There can be no doubt that these efforts will be forceful and because local elections and topics will no longer get in the way, the ideological conflict will rise up before us in all its fury.

Looking at things on the level of political parties, the Reform Party, Social Democrats, Estonia 200 and the Estonian Greens are in favor of expanding the concept of marriage, while EKRE is dead set against.

However, it is by no means certain that this matter will be EKRE contra mundum. While the Center Party's liberal wing is more visible, it also has a highly influential conservative constituency, especially as concerns Russian-speaking voters, that wants to know nothing about any sexual minorities. Isamaa is also split after its Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) group called for the referendum to be canceled a few days ago.

In addition to moral and ideological questions there is the problem of money. The referendum taking place in spring means that parties need to split their campaign budgets between the marriage referendum and local elections. This will prove difficult for a few at least.

However, very few people can answer the question of how could all this help make life in Estonia better, alleviate the coronavirus and economic crises, curb regional inequality or solve caregivers' problems?


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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