AK: Bill to allow MEPs to sit on local government not supported universally

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Five of Estonia's seven MEPs in in Strasbourg shortly after the May 2019 election. Clockwise from bottom left, Jaak Madison (EKRE), Vikerraadio presenter Arp Müller, Andrus Ansip (Reform), Urmas Paet (Reform), Sven Mikser (SDE), Marina Kaljurand (SDE).. Source: Mirko Ojakivi

A bill submitted to the Riigikogu Wednesday would allow MEPs to sit on local government in Estonia. The bill, should it enter into law, would head of accusations of 'decoy' candidates, meaning MEPs running in local elections as vote-gatherers but who would have no intention – since apart from anything else the rules would preclude them from it – of taking up their local government seat should they win one.

However, if the bill passes it would still be too late for the local elections on October 17, and would enter into force just one day after that date.

Critics, including one popular MEP, say that the two types of role are so different from one another that it would be hard to balance them out, and would also in effect favor voters in the local government constituency an MEP sat on – while MEPs are voted on a nationwide basis at European elections.

Chair of the Riigikogu's constitutional committee, Center MP Toomas Kivimägi, told ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Wednesday that: "Perhaps at present it can be said that when they (i.e. MEPs – ed.) run, they act like decoys, when they do not get on to a council. "

"If the bill gets parliamentary approval, then it would then be completely inappropriate to use the word 'decoy'. In that case, he or she would have the right to run for a council seat," he went on.

At present, while Riigikogu MPs are permitted to hold local government seats – and nearly half of them (48 out of 101) do – MEPs are barred from holding a seat, though not from running.

This means that MEPs can run on a party's local government list, but not take a seat should they win one.

The practice lays parties open to a charge of using the MEP as a "decoy" since, under Estonia's modified d'Hondt system of proportional representation, a candidate who clinches the threshold number of votes to win a seat can distribute excess votes to those lower down the list, often leading to them getting a seat where they wouldn't have done off their own bat.

The phenomenon of using such flagship names to attract votes is also used in Riigikogu elections and leads to a situation where candidates sometimes win a seat after gaining just a few hundred votes in their own right. The difference is, in a Riigikogu election, the big-name candidate would be able to take up their seat – and indeed would be required to, unless they were made a government minister; ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu.

Estonia has seven MEPs, up from the pre-Brexit figure of six, namely (in alphabetical order):Andrus Ansip (Reform), Marina Kaljurand (SDE), Jaak Madison (EKRE), Sven Mikser (SDE), Urmas Paet (Reform), Riho Terras (Isamaa) and Yana Toom (Center).

Under the current set up, any of the above could run in October's local elections, but could not take up a seat (or would have to relinquish their Brussels seat instead).

While the lure of Brussels may on the surface, to many readers, seem more appealing that that of Narva, say, one of the MEPs who would, if she were able to, sit there, says she would be interested in doing so there, or at least in Estonia as a whole.

Yana Toom aid that she had earlier come up with same idea behind the new bill, with the blessing of Center and Reform leaders Jüri Ratas and Kaja Kallas respectively, as well as both Reform MEPs, Ansip and Paet – the latter is somewhat of a nemesis for Toom, and vice versa, at least on the issue of citizenship.

Toom said the change would help get away from the "Brussels bubble" and help to keep one's feet on the ground in terms of local, domestic issues.

"In essence, I would agree to go to work on Narva city council, but in this case I would look tmore o Tallinn," she said.

Center has sole power on Tallinn City Government; Narva mayor is Katri Raik (SDE).

The issue had also been discussed during the last administration of Center, Isamaa and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) but not met that much enthusiasm on the whole, AK reported.

If the Riigikogu approves the bill, it will enter into force on the day after the local elections, however.

Marina Kaljurand was by far the most popular candidate at the May 2019 European elections, getting 66,143 votes (in second place was former prime minister Andrus Ansip on 41,368, while only the top eight candidates polled at five figures).

She says, however, that she is not interested in a dual role on a local council, since an MEP's role should be to represent constituents across Estonia, she says.

"Days off for MEPs on Fridays are for meeting with voters, and not to work in one particular local government constituency, but to meet with voters all over Estonia," she told AK.

Estonia is treated as one constituency at the European elections, compared with just under 80 constituencies in the local elections.

Meanwhile Isamaa, whose sole MEP, former defense chief Riho Terras, grabbed the seventh and final spot after a post-Brexit redistribution of some of the U.K.'s 74 former seats saw one go to Estonia, says it has not formulated a position on the bill, and will do so Monday.

Party chair Helir-Valdor Seeder told AK the bill had been rushed.

"The European Parliament and one particular Estonian local government are very far from each other, while it is also very difficult to combine their positions or work in a physical or logistical sense. So we are skeptical about."

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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