A bill containing a draft referendum on the definition of marriage will be before the Riigikogu on Thursday of next week, Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) leader Martin Helme says.
Helme, who is also finance minister, added that the wording of the referendum has not been decided yet and even if it should pass the Riigikogu readings before year-end, nothing concrete will happen yet. However, a date for the referendum has been established if it does pass – April 25 2021.
Wording has caused issues both on the questions posed, and even what term to use for the vote to be put to the public in spring, with the term "Rahvaküsitlus", which translates into English as plebiscite, superseding "Rahvahääletus", i.e. referendum, last week in political discussions on the issue.
Two variants of possible questions have already been proposed, but these too have met problems since they seemed to ask what the status of marriage and whether it was defined as between one man and one woman was in Estonia right now, rather than what it should be.
EKRE would enshrine the definition in the constitution – which currently makes no mention of marriage – but that too has hit difficulties.
Andrei Korobeinik (Center), an MP who is a member of the Riigikogu's working group on democracy, unveiled two alternative questions last week: "Does the Republic of Estonia recognize marriage as a union between a man and a woman exclusively?" and: "Does marriage in the Republic of Estonia constitute a bond between a man and a woman exclusively?"
However, critics have said that neither of these is satisfactory, as it is possible to give a "wrong" answer, in that they refer to the status quo and not how the voter would want things to be.
Now Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder says the Korobeinik questions were not the final say nor the proposal of the working group, adding that several options had been examined, including EKRE's own version which it got into the coalition agreement with Isamaa and Center and which Seeder says: "I do not think are appropriate. So let's discuss it further."
Martin Helme says that he doesn't see either of the two proposed questions as problematic, and has also noted that the question should not only concern marriages conducted inside Estonia, but those outside too.
Helme said: "All we are saying is that forms of marriage concluded outside Estonia which are not in line with Estonian law, will not be valid in Estonia."
Same-sex marriage is currently forbidden in Estonia; the Registered Partnership Act, which passed in 2014 and would allow a legal basis for cohabitation for same-sex couples has foundered, since implementing acts needed for it to pass into full force have not been enacted.
Consular marriages have on occasion been conducted for same-sex partners, for instance by the British Embassy in Tallinn.
Helme went on to say the matter would further be discussed, something which, Andrei Korobeinik says, will happen next week, with different formats of questions likely on the table, including an Isamaa version, according to Helir-Valdor Seeder.
Seeder said. "I have such a variation which at least in my opinion fits with what should be in in accordance with the law and which would be understandable to the populace."
The two provisional questions which emerged last week have met with derision in some quarters for being largely incomprehensible to the average Estonian citizen and which would require an in-depth knowledge of the constitution.
Only Estonian citizens would be able to vote in April's referendum/plebiscite.
Referendum/plebiscite due for April 25
One thing which has been agreed is a date for the public vote – April 25, if the bill to hold the referendum/plebiscite passes the Riigikogu before year end, ideally this month, Martin Helme says.
"There are three [Riigikogu] weeks-worth of sittings in November (the Riigikogu is not sitting this week – ed.)," Helme said.
"Of these, the first week we would use to submit the draft bill, the second week it would receive its first reading, and in the third week, its second reading and then it has to be adopted," Helme went on.
"I'm not going to paint myself in a corner, so if it waits to December, nothing will happen, or in January, nothing will happen. I think the sooner we do it, the better it will be for everyone, both the election service and those who want to launch campaigns."
EKRE had originally wanted to hold the referendum concurrently with next Autumn's local elections, but this met with resistance on the grounds that it might confuse the electorate – all residents of Estonia can vote in the local elections, but only citizens can vote in any referendum – and that it would obscure important local issues.
In turn, if Helme wants to get the vote wrapped up in the month of November, the process has to get underway as soon as possible, given that as noted November is a three-week month so far as parliament goes.
"This means I want to submit the bill at next Thursday's sitting (November 12 – ed.) at the latest," Helme went on.
Helme: Campaigning would cost hundreds of thousands of euros
Both Martin Helme and Helir-Valdor Seeder concur say that since organizing a referendum is up to Riigikogu, a draft would not be submitted by the government itself (government ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu – ed.), but by MPs.
This also gets round linking the vote to a vote of confidence in the current government, which Helme says is not in jeopardy in any case. "Right now, I cannot see that the coalition is suffering any losses. At least, cabinet colleagues have not told us anything along those lines," Helme said.
The coalition had seen a split on the issue the week before last following remarks made in the international media about gay people by interior minister Mart Helme. The joint declaration bringing this rift to a close saw EKRE conceding on holding the referendum on marriage definition in spring, not autumn.
A vote in favor of holding the referendum/plebiscite would also kick-start campaigning efforts by parties and interest groups, which Martin Helme said would be comprehensive, and Helir-Valdor Seeder has said would need further consideration in terms of size and extent.
The opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) announced Sunday that it supports same-sex marriage in Estonia, and an online petition issued by the non-parliamentary Green Party to define marriage in gender-neutral terms – not in the constitution but in the relevant legislation – has already garnered over 34,000 online signatures at the time of writing.
In terms of potential cost, Martin Helme put the figure in the hundreds of thousands of euros.
Martin Helme said: "This is a question of who has power in Estonia, is it in the hands of the people or in the courts, or elsewhere within an international organization."
Editor: Andrew Whyte