Toomas Sildam: Marriage vote to render coalition a one-trick pony

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center).
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

While it is nice the government is making efforts not to shut down the country because of the coronavirus crisis, it could still lock society in a dispute over what kind of cohabitation can be referred to as marriage and who can be called a couple for the next six months, journalist Toomas Sildam writes in the weekly comment section.

The coronavirus situation is rendering especially vulnerable sectors that employ 21 percent of Estonian workers – that is every fifth. And what is the ruling coalition discussing while this is happening? Is it how to handle the effects of the economic crisis? No, instead, it is whether marriage should remain a union between a man and a woman.

Still, the government also spent a week discussing whether it is okay for the interior minister to be unfriendly toward sexual minorities. It culminated in a joint address by the Center Party, Conservative People's Party (EKRE) and Isamaa where the ruling parties agreed that they are obligated to respect all Estonian residents.

A good part of another week was spent on debating whether the interior minister can say that the U.S. president-elect and his son are "corrupt characters" and whether it is fine for the finance minister to say that he feels there is no doubt that the U.S. presidential election was falsified. This culminated in the interior minister's resignation and the PM assuring us that the finance minister agreed during a coalition council meeting that USA is a democratic country that has rule of law.

After that, the coalition could return to the referendum issue of whether and how to define marriage.

While Riigikogu Foresight Center expert Uku Varblane warns that the Estonian economy is meeting the second wave of the coronavirus in a relatively vulnerable state as several sectors have used up buffers waiting for normality to return, the government is busy fine-tuning the phrasing of the marriage plebiscite question.

Auditor General Janar Holm handed to the Riigikogu the National Audit Office's annual report that looks at the future of vital public services – basic education, maintenance of law and order and healthcare. The answer to the question of how much longer peripheral areas can count on having enough police and rescue officers, teachers and family doctors is merciless. There already aren't enough and the deficit will be acute outside Harju and Tartu counties in a decade's time. At the same time, the government is discussing whether the marriage referendum should take place in April or May.

Whereas two out of three coalition parties include quite a few people who feel there is no referendum. A politician's Facebook profile picture reading, "I say NO to the referendum as a member of Isamaa" speaks for itself.

So it goes. Political scientist Tõnis Saarts who gave a lengthy interview to ERR this week only failed to answer a question once. "Do you know what are the common values of the coalition between the Center Party, EKRE and Isamaa?" Saarts fell silent for a while before saying: "I believe that all would sign the preamble of the Constitution when it comes to the survival of the Estonian language and culture… But as far as the rest… Yes, I am stumped. It is a very problematic coalition and one not based on common values."

The opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) is looking to derail the referendum by filing tens of thousands of motions to amend the draft resolution the voting of which would paralyze the work of the parliament and cause the bill to be shelved. The coalition's plan of liquidating the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) and handing its tasks over to the National Audit Office was sunk in this manner.

EKRE chair, Minister of Finance Martin Helme vowed to counter with Riigikogu sessions that drag into the night where the social democrats' proposals would be put to a vote. We should hope that EKRE's partners Center and Isamaa instead use their time in the Riigikogu to fulfill the coalition agreement promise of analyzing "various opportunities, including changes to tax policy, national investments, regional programs etc. to ensure balanced development all over Estonia."

And what kind of tax policy Estonia needs – a question that even the Reform Party now dare ask. Are VAT and income tax rates set in stone? Every person matters and life needs to be possible everywhere in Estonia – while beautiful and relevant, these questions and slogans have no meaning today. Policies always come with a price tag.

Holding a referendum over the meaning of marriage would see the entire society, including the government only address this one topic. The coalition would become a one-topic government. We have the coronavirus crisis, economic crisis, people losing their jobs and companies going out of business – but we a debating over what kind of cohabitation can be called marriage and who can or cannot be referred to as a married couple.

Talking about rescue workers making fewer than €1,200 a month in a situation where the average salary is €1,409 seems petty in the midst of trying to solve such an epochal conflict of values

The latter is irony, of course, while irony is often what is needed to survive hard times.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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