Urmas Viilma: A time-out and Riigikogu confidence vote

Urmas Viilma.
Urmas Viilma. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The most responsible thing politicians could do would be to agree on a compromise that would see the marriage question put up for referendum as a bill as opposed to a matter of national significance. Failure to secure the people's support for the bill would result in the president declaring extraordinary elections.

I am writing as an Estonian citizen who is relatively confused and worried. I have kept a close eye on proceedings of the draft resolution for protecting the concept of marriage in the Riigikogu.

The situation right now (the article was published on Saturday, January 9 – ed.) seems to be that the opposition's obstruction tactic has completely paralyzed the work of the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee that is in charge of processing the bill.

The opposition's proposal of shelving the bill and returning to it after the COVID-19 healthcare and economic crisis is not a compromise the coalition could consider suitable. It is seen merely as an attempt to torpedo the referendum idea.

At the same time, the coalition is attempting to take the initial plan forward without looking for compromises to be able to hold the referendum in the second half of April no matter what. This behavior fails to consider the opposition that is calling it as steamrolling.

Morally dubious steps

The coalition is strapped for time that has caused the heads and members of the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee to thrash about in a rather embarrassing manner. Political maneuvering has caused the committee to not have a chairman or deputy chairman when these lines are written. Work has come to a halt. (The Constitutional Committee decided on Sunday, January 10 to send the bill to its second reading with four individual proposals to amend and a so-called obstruction cluster where the remaining 9,313 proposals to amend have been grouped together and will be voted on as one – ed.)

The opposition's obstruction this time comes across as a below the belt blow that ignores good practice and fair game not just for their political adversaries but a considerable part of citizens who have respect for representative democracy.

Political scientists and constitutional experts have remained cautiously silent in their observation and analysis of the situation. Both obstruction in its extent and methods and how the Constitutional Committee has tried to overrule the opposition's proposals or participation in proceedings has been morally dubious.

All of it has jeopardized the dignity and seriousness of the Riigikogu, as well as people's faith in politicians and the policy they pursue. At least for a time.

Taut strings

Strings tying society together are perceptibly taut to which a political impasse on Toompea Hill will only add. It is not right to try and find someone to blame.

I suppose we are all responsible one way or another for positioning ourselves on either side of the divide and making it known, especially on social media. Those who are not with me are against me. It is the zeitgeist today.

The intermediate option of balanced and caring attempts to navigate the underwater rocks and rely on one another despite differences is nowhere to be seen. We have all spoken more than we have taken the time to listen to others. Especially when it comes to listening to all they have to say.

We all hold the key to easing the tension in these strings. We need time to calm down and restore rhythm before the strings that make us a single nation and family snap. We need to take a time-out so as not to hurt one another and to be able to move on instead of having to turn back.

New referendum date

I have come to doubt whether April 18 or 25 (as proposed by Jaak Valge [EKRE] in his motion to amend) are realistic dates for holding the referendum. Primarily in light of the COVID-19 situation and public health risks.

Looking at case rate fluctuations in different countries, I believe that sending citizens to ballot boxes in late April would not be a responsible move by the state and could be described as risky at best.

Even with the possibility of e-voting, elderly citizens will turn up to vote in person, potentially exposing themselves and others to the virus. It could also result in more modest voter turnout among older people due to fear of infection.

Considering past practice of elections in Estonia, the 2021 referendum could he held around the time European Parliament elections are usually held in late May or early June.

I perceive no serious counterarguments to the proposal. The coalition could postpone the second reading of the referendum bill in the Riigikogu and create the preconditions for tensions to be managed, emotions to cool and a more normal working environment to be restored.

A pause aimed at moving on

Postponing the second reading of the draft resolution and the referendum date would help achieve several goals.

We would not be endangering public health in a situation where no one has certainty in terms of the virus subsiding by April. Of course, there is no guarantee for June either. While we might be looking at the third wave by then, it would be early days and ways for people to go to and from polling stations could be found.

The government and Riigikogu could spend more time concentrating on managing the healthcare and economic crises. The opposition has pointed out that the coalition is not pursuing constructive topics recently. Even if the latter does not agree, gaining additional time would create premise for less politically stressful handling of the crisis.

The Constitutional Committee could calmly and unemotionally concentrate on ensuring higher quality when processing proposals to amend the draft resolution. It would have enough time to systemize the proposals – separate the wheat from the chaff, discuss more serious proposals and prepare them for deliberation on the floor. If the proposals "nut" proves too tough for the committee to crack, there would be enough time to commission a legal analysis to ensure legal certainty moving forward.

The move would support the opposition's proposal of taking a time-out. There would be no more need for forceful obstruction by the Reform Party and SDE or paralyzing of the parliament's work for a long time as time would be taken for discussing constructive proposals and hearing from rapporteurs.

Finally, it would very likely boost voter turnout once the referendum takes place, especially among older voters who might not turn out sooner in fear of the coronavirus.

Proposals – from sensible to senseless

I have managed to read most of the proposals to amend the marriage referendum draft resolution. Despite the process being technically inconvenient and time-consuming, I did it to get an overview of how our politicians feel about various phenomena.

I also got an insight into MPs' attitudes and estimations through their proposals. Hundreds upon hundreds of motions to amend manage to trump the efforts of stand-up comedians in terms of their humorousness and irony, while many others compete with the embarrassing input of online comment sections by resorting to mean sarcasm and boorishness.

Let it be said that there were also enough proposals that could be included in the election programs of parties going into local or Riigikogu elections in all seriousness.

The proposals point to a lot of fields and topics that could use more serious treatment and deserve greater attention from all political forces in Estonia.

The proposals include a number of problems raised as questions as concerns climate, environment, culture, civil society, law and order, security, defense, social welfare, science, healthcare, sport, religious life etc.

However, we must keep in mind that no matter how businesslike some of these proposals are, they were introduced for the purposes of obstruction. The opposition has made no secret of the fact their aim is to prevent the referendum from taking place at all costs.

Asking the right questions at the right time and in the right place is sensible. The attempt at obstruction at hand does not credit its authors as proposals to amend include very few that are relevant.

However, the main problem is not so much the different nature of these proposals rather than their sheer number that is coupled with requests for MPs to be able to present them in the committee. The committee in charge of proceedings has no such time to grant as its goal is to conduct the second reading next Wednesday.

The opposition knew there was no time but did not abandon its demand. The chairman of the Constitutional Committee also knew there was no time but tried to solve the problem through force but could not jump over his own shadow. Who could! The political confrontation was escalated to the limit. To move forward, room needs to be made for taking steps. Even steps back if necessary.

Open wound

Polarization in society cannot be reversed or dispelled by canceling the referendum so the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act could be passed or marriage equality introduced at a later time.

Whichever steps toward passing the provisions or introducing marriage equality would not constitute a compromise without giving proponents of traditional marriage certainty through the referendum. Leaving the situation as it is for a longer period of time would also be unsustainable.

Tensions that have lingered and deepened for such a long time only work to perpetuate the conflict in society. The wound the inflicting of which those behind the Registered Partnership Act do not admit will stay with us for a very long time provided nothing changes.

Their "good intensions" created a lot which has barricaded us on either side of a dividing line between former and current friends and acquaintances, family members and relatives, neighbors and guests. People are becoming alienated from one another while being saddened by the development.

To move forward, we need to pass through the referendum process and let the wound inflicted in 2014 heal. That is possible only by asking the people – ourselves – what should be done about marriage next.

The referendum does not seek to determine the concept of marriage – and not what goes on in people's bedrooms – as it is today. The question is how to define it in the future.

Both "no" and "yes" answers would help send a message in terms of whether the road is open to marriage equality, passing of the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act, the meaning of marriage as defined in the Family Act remaining or its meaning changing.

Parties will learn what kind of promises to take to upcoming Riigikogu elections to represent their voters' rights and interests (not their sex life). The referendum will end the current stuffy and tense situation.

Vote of trust in the Riigikogu

It has occurred to me in recent days that the most responsible thing to do would be to put the matter up for referendum in the form of a bill as opposed to a matter of national significance.

The Riigikogu needs a vote of confidence to retain its dignity in light of recent weeks.

Asking the people to decide on a bill would remind MPs who they serve. They would either learn they have the people's trust or that they have failed to serve and represent the country with dignity.

Support for the bill would be a message of the people's trust in the Riigikogu. However, the bill failing to be supported by the majority of voters would cause the president to hold an extraordinary election. The parliament learned one such lesson roughly 100 years ago. It had a positive effect at the time.

Jesus says: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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