Toomas Sildam: Trouble with the marriage referendum

Jüri Ratas and Helir-Valdor Seeder.
Jüri Ratas and Helir-Valdor Seeder. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

While things are clear enough when it comes to the outspoken supporters and opponents of the planned referendum to define marriage, politics is also a game of half-tones in which context Center Party and Isamaa leaders Jüri Ratas and Helir-Valdor Seeder now find themselves, journalist Toomas Sildam writes.

Coalition politicians Siim Kiisler, Viktoria Ladõnskaja-Kubits and Üllar Saaremäe have publicly challenged the government by adding to their Facebook profile pictures the words, "I say NO to the marriage referendum as an Isamaa member." They make up a quarter of Isamaa's modest to begin with Riigikogu group.

This is a political headache for Isamaa chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder. It constitutes a battle on multiple fronts for him as Isamaa's in-house dissidents the Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) already get much of his attention. This was reflected in Seeder's nervous reaction to former Prosecutor General Lavly Perling voicing support for the Parempoolsed, saying that "Isamaa has become a teddy bear under the populist's arm." Perling currently works for the UN and the European Union while remaining a member of the Prosecutor's Office until she reaches seniority required for special pension next fall.

However, the coalition that agreed to the referendum following pressure from the leaders of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) is running out of ways to ensure the vote over whether marriage should remain a union between a man and a woman can go ahead on April 18. If the coalition usually has 56 votes at its disposal in the 101-strong Riigikogu, the opposition of three Isamaa MPs reduces it to 53. Losing another three doubters would leave the coalition without the parliamentary majority.

While both Center and Isamaa have their doubters, it is another matter whether more independent centrists will dare break party voting discipline.

At the same time, the opposition – Social Democratic Party and Reform Party – has vowed to use obstruction tactics to thwart the referendum. This means putting forward tens of thousands of motions to amend to the draft resolution to declare the referendum. Voting on all of these proposals would paralyze the work of the Riigikogu for too long, meaning that the bill would have to be shelved. That is just what happened to an attempt by the coalition to dissolve the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) a little while ago.

EKRE commissioned a legal analysis from the Office of the Riigikogu for how to bypass obstruction the results of which are not encouraging. While the social democrats' proposals to amend could theoretically be tied together for a single vote, such an action could be challenged by the justice chancellor in the Supreme Court as it might constitute a breach of parliamentary procedure, lawyers warn.

The government could also introduce amendments to the Riigikogu Rules and Procedures Act and dial back possibilities for obstruction. However, the government intervening in the work of the legislator is a poor practice and it remains doubtful Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) would dare openly undermine parliamentary democracy, having spent nine years as vice president of the Riigikogu.

The heads of EKRE have already said that it doesn't matter whether the referendum they hold to be vital will take place a week, month or a full year later than planned – it will happen during this government's time. Their opponents in the coalition, the Riigikogu opposition and civil society have vowed to fight the referendum until the end as they regard it to be divisive, hurtful for minorities and unfair.

Therefore, everything is clear when it comes to the referendum's public supporters and opponents.

However, politics is always a game of half-tones. The situation is difficult for Center and Isamaa leaders Ratas and Seeder. They have promised EKRE the referendum, while neither and especially Ratas is likely looking forward to the government's next several months in office concentrating exclusively on the referendum, keeping it from addressing the healthcare and economic crises. To make sure that does not happen, the referendum decision needs to be shelved in the parliament in a way that would keep the coalition from falling apart.

The referendum is quite a bother then. However, considering how ingenious Ratas has been at solving government crises and problems so far, he should be up to the task.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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