A plebiscite on the definition of marriage as agreed by the three coalition partners is the only right way to decide on the issue, the chairman of the Isamaa party Helir-Valdor Seeder said on Thursday.
Seeder made his remarks in light of tens of thousands of people signing an online petition to change Estonia's Family Law Act to define marrige as gender-neutral.
"In the present situation, a plebiscite is a reasonable choice, as it will help bring clarity and a solution into a dispute that has continued for years. Not deciding or postponing the decision is tantamount to twisting the knife - it doesn't heal anything, but will cause more pain," Seeder said in a written appeal.
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 this week.
"The coalition parties have agreed that the plebiscite to determine marriage as a union between a man and a woman will take place in spring 2021. At the same time, tens of thousands of people have put their signature under a petition initiated by the Greens for the introduction of gender-neutral marriage. A polarizing situation like this demonstrates that the opinion of the people must be asked for understanding marriage as a union between a man and a woman," Seeder went on.
The petition of the Greens, a non-parliamentary party, in favor of the introduction of gender-neutral marriage in Estonia had been signed by 32,941 people by noon on Thursday.
The proposed plebiscite, which originally appeared in the April 2019 coalition agreement signed between Center, EKRE and Isamaa, was due to take place concurrently with the fall 2021 local elections but may not take place at the end of April.
Mart Helme: Hold plebiscite to 'clean up the air'
Interior Minister Mart Helme on Thursday likened the planned plebiscite on the definition of marriage to a thunderstorm, which will "clean up the air."
The Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) minister said at the government's press conference that the planned plebiscite is not one that splits society. He described the actions of the opposition and non-parliamentary parties taking advantage of the opportunity as splitting the society instead.
"Furious opposition to the referendum is splitting the society," Helme said. He described the planned plebiscite as a thunderstorm, which will clean up the air.
Helme said that the starting point of the polarization was the Registered Partnership Act, which was pushed through in the Riigikogu despite opposition from a big proportion of the population.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said that a plebiscite could "bring more clarity."
Petition aimed at legislation, coalition proposed vote wants to change constitution
Whereas the Green Party-initiated petition would amend the Family Law Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman in its opening paragraph, the planned coalition vote would insert the definition in the consitution, if it were to receive a 'yes' vote from the people.
The move has met with constitutional law complications, with Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise saying the version which appeared in the coalition agreement was in fact unconstitutional.
EKRE MP Helle-Moonika Helme had already seemingly issued a climbdown on the definition appearing in the constitution, after saying the referendum/plebiscite's wording would not contain the term "constitution".
The current Estonian Constitution, which has not been amended since it was drawn up upon the restoration of Estonian independence, contains no reference to marriage.
Efforts to change the constitution – actually the fourth since the first period of Estonian independence beginning in 1918 – are likely to be hampered by safeguards in place to ensure that just that should not easily happen, given the ease with which former prime minister, later president, Konstantin Päts had been able to initiate a new constitution during the so-called era of silence in the mid-1930s.
The Green Party's petition had been signed by 32,941 people on the citizens' initiative website as of noon Thursday, by far the most-signed petition in the site's history and far in excess of the 1,000 signatures required before a petition can potentially be heard at the Riigikogu.
Ultimately the Riigikogu's three-member board make the decision on whether to debate a petition or not; one of those members is Helir-Valdor Seeder.
Editor's note: This article was updated to add quotes from Mart Helme and Jüri Ratas.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Helen Wright