The Riigikogu's democracy working group member Andrei Korobeinik told ERR on Thursday the plebiscite on the concept of marriage may take place at the end of April 2021 and legal advice is being sought on two possible wordings of the question.
"Does the Republic of Estonia recognize marriage as a union between a man and a woman exclusively?" or "Does marriage in the Republic of Estonia constitute as a bond between a man and a woman exclusively?" These are the initial wording options for the marriage referendum, currently awaiting legal advice.
Korobeinik said the plebiscite will not hold legal weight but the question posed cannot be contrary to legislation.
The Center Party politician said: "Legal expertise will assess if it can be asked in this way. And can Estonia say that it does not recognize marriage between two women if they are coming from Sweden to Estonia, for example."
Therefore, the legal advice could lead to more possible wordings of the question being proposed, but Korobeinik said the question should be set in stone by the end of November.
Korobeinik, like Seeder, used the word "rahvaküsitlus", which would translate as plebiscite, rather than "rahvahääletus", meaning referendum – the term that had been widely used to refer to the planned vote until today.
Education minister: There are no direct legal consequences for the plebiscite
Center Party deputy chairman Mailis Reps told ERR that Center and Isamaa took EKRE's proposed questions as principle knowledge, but they decided that legal opinion was needed as soon as possible, in addition to the opinion of the Chancellor of Justice.
Reps confirmed that Center will not go into the plebiscite thinking it is legally binding.
The education minister said: "Our stance from the start that it (the plebiscite - ed.) is just asking the public's opinion, which can lead us to take further steps but we will consider the assessments of specialists that it is still something more than just asking for opinions."
Reps added: "The coalition has agreed that it is a question asking for public opinion, just as anything else. And politicians will have to make decisions going forward based on the public opinion."
She said the plebiscite will have no direct legal consequences: "Not directly. But the justice chancellor's interpretation is if the contrary would be discussed in court, it has convincing argumentation, but there are legal nuances involved as well. But in principle, the plebiscite is a public opinion survey."
The minister added: "When the coalition was formed, all parties involved agreed that the public's opinion will be asked first and then a decision will be made on what decisions will follow."
According to Reps, the best solution is that people could decide on personal questions based on their conscience. "We have a Family Law Act and a Registered Partnership Act. It would be the best solution if we had a de facto form and then another traditional form, which would be able to be formed in church."
Isamaa Party leader: The plebiscite should be binding
Isamaa head Helir-Valdor Seeder told ERR that he thinks the marriage-defining plebiscite should be legally binding.
"So it can be changed in the future with a new plebiscite, it would not be possible for the Riigikogu or the government to change the results of the plebiscite by amending legislation," Seeder said.
He continued: "But I would like to emphasize that we have consulted with different lawyers and they hold differing opinions. There are some that say the plebiscite is binding and can only be amended with another plebiscite. There are some that think the plebiscite's results will only be in effect for the duration of the current Riigikogu. And there are some who think it is not binding at all, that it is valid but recommendational to politicians. All these questions must be straightened out."
Social Democratic Party leader: These questions are an attack on us and our allies
The chairman of the Social Democratic Party Indrek Saar told ERR that the proposed questions are an attack on the Estonian people and allies.
Saar said: "If we think that these are the questions put on the plebiscite, then in addition to it being an attack on our people, it is an aggresive attack toward on our allies as well, on all these countries who have legalized same-sex marriages. They would be sent a clear signal that if you come to Estonia, then international agreements would not be valid. /.../ I do not know what it means legally."
He continued: "These questions sound just like the democracy working group. And if we look at what that working group works on - on dividing Estonia as much as possible and helping one part form its potential voters. If we call this democracy, then that is how we need to look at these questions."
A referendum on the concept of marriage was agreed in the coalition agreement (page 30) when the government was formed in March 2019. Pushed by EKRE, it would seek to add a definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman to the constitution.
EKRE wanted a referendum to be held at the same time as local government elections on October 17, 2021 but the government has now agreed to hold it in spring next year instead.
EKRE initially suggested the question could be phrased: "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?" but the coalition did not agree.
While the referendum's exact wording has not been agreed upon by the coalition, It would likely be a straight "yes" or "no" question.
Opposition politicians are opposed to the referendum, with Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas calling it "an EKRE provocation others should not join", while the chairman of the Social Democrats (SDE) Indrek Saar has called it a "hate referendum".
Only Estonian citizens will be able to vote in the referendum.
Editor's note: This article was updated with comments from Mailis Reps, Helir-Valdor Seeder and Indrek Saar.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste, Helen Wright