Rait Maruste: Obstructionism and the rule of law

Rait Maruste.
Rait Maruste. Source: Lääneranna Municipality Government

The confrontation between the coalition and opposition has become so sharp to have resulted in direct disregard for valid legal norms. It is especially shameful it has taken place in the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee, Rait Maruste writes.

Blatantly ignoring the Riigikogu Rules and Procedures Act is unconstitutional because § 3 subsec. 1 of the Estonian Constitution clearly provides that "State authority is executed based exclusively on the Constitution and constitutional acts."

Obstructionism is hardly new or unheard-of in civilized parliamentarism. It is more common in Anglo-American politics, while it has also been wielded in Europe, in France and the United Kingdom.

Methods differ, ranging from giving hours-long speeches (filibustering), to taking a very long time to walk to the rostrum (cow walk) and introducing a massive number of amendment proposals to clog up proceedings.

Estonian parliamentarism knows obstructionism from the days of Konstantin Päts, with the honor of its first modern use going to Arvo Junti. The aim of the practice is always the same – to oppose a bill in proceedings and the policy it seeks to execute. Especially in a situation where the parliamentary majority has ceased to consider the opposition and is moving forward at all costs.

The manner in which bills are processed is regulated by the Riigikogu Rules and Procedures Act. Its § 99 subsec. 1 states that "…MPs, committees and factions have 10 working days to introduce motions to amend bills." The law does not regulate how many proposals can be introduced or their contents. Therefore, the opposition has conducted itself in accordance with the law.

From there, § 100 provides that the committee in charge (and not only its chairman) "examines all …amendment proposals…" and subsec. 2 unambiguously provides that the "committee in charge (read: the chairman) must afford MPs presenting the proposal a chance to explain it before a decision is made."

This means that all proposals to amend must be examined. The law prescribes no exceptions or the committee chairman's discretion to pick and choose or determine whether some proposals can be lumped together as unconstructive.

Yes, proposals can be irrelevant or even vulgar at times. It is possible. But while it is not exactly statesmanlike, the problem therein is not systemic. The only legal way to remove such proposals from proceedings is to examine them before putting them to a vote. As with any other kind of proposal.

The law also clearly provides that when examining motions to amend in a committee, the latter must afford the MP who introduced the proposal the chance to explain it before a decisions is made. The [Constitutional] committee chairman did not and, therefore, directly violated the law.

Yes, it is possible to claim that these regulations are unsuitable, obstructive and in need of amending. However, it is the law today that cannot be violated using justifications of political will or purposefulness. The legal maxim dura lex sed lex (the law is harsh but it is the law) applies.

It is too late to think about amending the law today. It should have been done when the coalition came to power if at all. It seems that understanding that administration needs to follow rules in a democratic country is not a strong suit of the coalition. We can add to that the fact that amending Riigikogu rules and procedures has required an agreement between all faction in recent constitutional practice.

It is clear that this Bolshevist violation has delivered a serious blow to the legitimacy of the referendum and provided grounds for challenging its constitutionality.

Coalition circles, most recently through Archbishop Urmas Viilma, have suggested that the Registered Partnership Act was forced upon the Estonian people. However, nothing even remotely similar to what we are seeing now took place when the latter was processed. It was passed narrowly but entirely in accordance with the law.

If one is convinced and tries to convince the people that a legal majority vote constitutes forcing something on the people, it is akin to suggesting that the parliament is constantly forcing upon the people taxes, punishments, limitations, obligations, regulations etc. That when interpreted in this manner constitutes undermining statehood, democracy and the rule of law.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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