Leaders of two of the coalition parties' Rigiikogu groups have rejected a claim by new MP Imre Sooäär (Center) that MPs should be free to choose for themselves how they would vote on the marriage definition referendum bill.
Center Riigikogu grop leader Kersti Sarapuu told ERR Tuesday that: "The Center Party's Riigikogu group adheres to the coalition agreement and supports the referendum procedure in the plenary (i.e. parliamentary – ed.) session. The Center Party supports direct democracy, and we consider the functioning of the coalition important."
Sooäär was sworn in as an MP Monday afternoon at a tumultuous (by Estonian standards) parliamentary session in which he gave a speech ahead of taking his oath. Sooäär, who says he will vote against holding a referendum on marriage, was heckled and asked several times by speaker Henn Põlluaas (EKRE) to stop talking and take the oath, before his mic was muted.
The bill, which would decide whether the referendum will go ahead at all, as planned for April, was jointly issued by Center, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa, but has already met resistance from MPs from Isamaa and now, via Sooäär, from Center.
Isamaa MPs already opposing coalition line
The referendum itself would pose the question should the status quo on marriage as defined in legislation as between one man and one woman remain the case. The referendum was an EKRE policy, which the party – a party which has been talking a lot about direct democracy in recent months – managed to get inserted into the April 2019 coalition agreement signed with Center and Isamaa.
Three Isamaa MPs have already publicly declared their opposition to the referendum via social media "badges"; one of them, Siim Kiisler, was removed from the constitutional affairs committee after voting the referendum off the Riigikogu agenda.
Isamaa group chair Priit Sibil said that he did not support the idea of a free vote either, notwithstanding the Isamaa MPs – one quarter of the party's total complement – who have taken a stance against holding the vote.
Isamaa Riigikogu group leader: Can't think of precedent for voting against party
Sibul said: "I do not fully understand this logic, because it is usually the case that people choose the party to which they belong and whose views they support according to their own free will and with a heart full of love."
"Subsequently it is extremely logical that you get a say in shaping the party's policy positions," he added.
Sibul also said the topic had been rendered unnecessarily complex.
"I don't know if there have been any issues so far where parties or political groups have discussed not acting on issues as agreed or as planned in a manifesto. I can't imagine that if we go down that route, how, where and when we will be able to extricate ourselves from it … I don't fully understand this logic," Sibul continued.
Sooäär expected to tip balance ahead of claiming his seat
Sooäär became an MP after several days of will he-won't he, replacing Kalev Kallo, and almost immediately revealed that not only would he be voting against Center and against the referendum, but also that all MPs should vote with their conscience rather than their party, if the two didn't coincide.
Sooäär's rationale is that party pre-election manifestos did not include the topic of a referendum on the issue, ie. that it was only subsequently entered by EKRE – who originally wanted a "yes" vote in the referendum to be followed by inserting the definition in the Estonian Constitution, which currently makes no mention of marriage.
However, ERR's online news in Estonian reports that EKRE's manifesto did contain a point (link in Estonian) which reads: "We define marriage in the Constitution as a union between a man and a woman."
The coalition agreement reiterates this policy (link in Estonian).
Ahead of Sooäär - who received 349 votes at the general election but was next in line to take up the vacated seat after Kalev Kallo had to step down following being found guilty of engaging in bribery - taking up his seat, speculation was rife that he, along with the three Isamaa MPs, plus one more, Mihhail Lotman, who later made known his opposition to the referendum, would almost tip the balance at the 101-seat Riigikogu in favor of voting down the bill.
The referendum, should it go ahead, would be open to citizens only, with voting to be conducted electronically. Setting up secure systems for this has also been a factor in the planned vote's timing.
Editor: Andrew Whyte