Mart Helme: EKRE ditching policy confining local election vote to citizens

Former interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE).
Former interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) former leader Mart Helme says the party has rowed back on a manifesto policy of restricting the vote in municipal elections to citizens-only, at least as it pertains to stateless persons.

In an interview given in late October, Helme told Severnoje Poberežje (link in Russian) – the Russian-language version of Postimees-owned local daily Põhjarannik – that the issue was no longer topical and the situation had changed a lot in the past two years.

Stateless persons, alternatively referred to as persons of indeterminate citizenship, primarily comprises people whose first language is Russian but who have citizenship neither of Estonia nor of the Russian Federation, nor any other state. Such individuals, a legacy of Estonia's occupation by the Soviet Union, when the country was seen as an attractive destination for work, numbered around 87,000 in 2018, chiefly located in Ida-Viru County, compared with around 100,000 citizens of the Russian Federation also resident in Estonia.

Helme said a coalition decision to make the Estonian language school leavers' exam, along with the social studies exam, with the citizenship language test, is likely to reduce both the number of stateless persons and people taking Russian citizenship who are resident in Estonia.

Helme also said that raising the issue now would cause conflict in the coalition, a week after he stepped down as interior minister following a backlash from Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) and others, after remarks Helme made over the recent U.S. elections.

"I think that the problem of who can and cannot vote in the local elections will gradually be solved," Helme told the daily.

Stateless persons – the so-called gray passport holders, referring to the color of the travel document they are issued with – can obtain Estonian citizenship by passing a language exam and citizenship test.

The language exam is set at B1 in the Common European Framework.

EKRE's own manifesto issued ahead of the March 2019 general election states that: "We value citizenship, and will establish the right for the vote to local government to be restricted to citizens, and we oppose dual citizenship."

As the law stands, residents of Estonia are generally permitted to vote in next fall's local elections, regardless of their country of origin.

Dual citizenship is in any case forbidden under Estonian law, though a paradox exists where those granted citizenship under Estonia's principle of jus sanguinis cannot be stripped of it,* meaning in practice many people born to Estonian parents outside of Estonia, particularly in countries where the jus soli principle is rather then norm – such as the U.S. –do in fact have dual citizenship.

Helme said that his party is also to focus more on Ida-Viru County voters, noting that Center – the traditional dominant party in the region – need not feel threatened by this.

While EKRE support among native Russian-speaking voters has traditionally been small, the party's stance on same-sex marriage, i.e. that the Constitution should be amended to prevent this, is likely to have led to a rise in support in comparison with Center's more liberal stance.

Center saw its vote diminish in the March 2019 elections among that demographic, though lost voters had not gone to another party, instead choosing not to exercise their right to vote at all.

What the party's stance was on non-Russian foreign nationals resident in Estonia and their right to vote in local elections was not referenced in the interview.

*Individuals awarded Estonian citizenship on merit can be stripped of it in the case of severe matters, mostly concerning national security.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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