AK: Pro-marriage referendum Riigikogu majority under threat

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Toompea Castle, seat of the Riigikogu in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

A Riigikogu vote on whether to hold a referendum on the definition of marriage may be affected by a recent change in the chamber's make-up, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Sunday night, with one Center MP saying the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) may end up leaving the coalition if it couldn't get the referendum bill passed.

Imre Sooäär is to announce Monday whether he will take up a seat, replacing Kalev Kallo.

Sooäär, a former Reform Party MP, ran on the Center Party's list in the March 2019 election, narrowly missing out on picking up a seat under Estonia's d'Hondt system of proportional representation.

However, Kalev Kallo will be fully relinquishing his seat, and may be replaced by Sooäär after being handed a suspended sentence of one year and six months in prison for engaging in bribe giving and taking, as one facet of the long-running Edgar Savisaar corruption trial.

Sooäär undecided on which way he will swing on referendum vote

If Sooäär does enter parliament, speculation is rife that the vote against holding the referendum, planned for next April and which would ask Estonia's citizenry whether marriage should continue to be legally defined as between one man and one woman, may win out.

With Sooäär and assuming he would vote against holding the referendum – he says he has not yet decided – the "anti" vote would number 50 at the 101-seat Riigikogu, AK reported.

The planned referendum was a policy proposal of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), but the bill to hold the referendum was a joint effort involving the other two coalition parties, Center and Isamaa.

EKRE chair Martin Helme says that even if the required 51-vote majority at the Riigikogu is not met, the government will go ahead with the referendum, which will take place using e-voting only, in any case.

Center MP: Coalition agreement committed to holding referendum

Center MPs as a whole have not yet reached a common position on the issue, though one of the Riigikogu members, Oudekki Loone, said that since the policy was entered into the coalition agreement signed by the three parties in late April 2019, it can only be struck off or amended if all three parties agree.

Loone told AK that: "If we were to decide now that we would not want to go ahead as a coalition, we would not be voting as the individual consciences of MPs require."

Loone added that she was in favor of participatory democracy, but declined to say how she would vote.

Isamaa MP Siim Kiisler was recently removed from the Riigikogu's constitutional affairs committee for voting the referendum off the agenda, and he and two other party-mates recently made their opposition to it known via social media.

Indrek Saar, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE), a party avowedly opposed to the referendum, wrote in an opinion piece which appeared on portal Delfi (link in Estonian) that Sooäär's accession to the chamber, should it go ahead, would go far beyond his own vote, and in fact would swing the vote against the referendum, pour encourager les autres.

Provisional anti-referendum vote creeping close to magic 51

AK reported that if all opposition MPs (Reform and SDE) all vote against the referendum, and Kiisler and the two other dissenting Isamaa MPs, Üllar Saaremäe and Viktoria Ladõnsakaja-Kubits join them, the vote against will already stand at 48, meaning only three other coalition MPs would need to vote no.

As EKRE's leader said the party would press on with the referendum come what may, Oudekki Loone said that the party may end up out of the coalition, but at the same time supporting it on certain bills.

Loone told AK that: "One outcome is that they (EKRE – ed.) say it's all well and good we aren't in office any more, let Center and Isamaa continue, and we will support certain bills, especially based on items that we once agreed, but for each specific issue you will have to come and negotiate with us separately."

Since Center and Isamaa together would have 37 seats and thus not have a majority, they would in any case be dependent on the EKRE vote, barring bills which the two opposition parties agreed with.

Vote will be on retaining status quo rather than changing it

However, Isamaa chair Priit Sibul said the picture Loone painted was not realistic, as being a minority government was not viable.

Another MP who might tip the balance even further is Mihhail Lotman (Isamaa), who told agricultural weekly Maaleht that while he did not oppose referendums per se, he could not support the marriage referendum one. This would bring the vote against the referendum to 49, AK reported.

While EKRE's original intention was to both hold the referendum concurrently with the fall 2021 local elections and to insert the definition of marriage into the constitution as being a union between a man and a woman, it faced push-back on both issues.

Holding the referendum at the same time as the local elections would confuse the electorate, critics said, and would set up a two-tier system since while the local elections are open to all residents to vote in, only citizens may vote in a referendum.

Altering the constitution, which currently makes no reference to marriage, would not be possible of the back of one referendum, justice chancellor Ülle Madise and several other legal experts have said.

The Family Law Act currently defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Since it is legislation, it can be amended.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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