Isamaa and EKRE oppose non-Estonian citizens' local election voting rights

Vote counting at Kalev Sports Center in Tallinn, on election night.
Vote counting at Kalev Sports Center in Tallinn, on election night. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

EKRE and Isamaa want to restrict the voting rights of non-Estonian and non-EU citizens residing in Estonia, while the other parliamentary parties prefer alternative solutions. Currently, Estonian residents who are not Estonian citizens, nor of any other EU country, are eligible to vote in local elections.

In the local elections last fall, in addition to Estonian and EU citizens, 140,167 people had the right to vote. Around half of these (70,154) were Russian citizens and a further 63,397 were stateless persons. However, only foreigners with legal residence in Estonia are eligible to vote.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has once again raised the question of whether Russian citizens should have a say in who runs Estonia's municipalities. On Monday, former Isamaa chairman and two-time prime minister Mart Laar said, that Isamaa could call for voting rights to be restricted during coalition talks.

"Giving the right to vote in local elections to citizens of a completely different country, a hostile country - that could be abolished," said Laar.

In fact, Isamaa already submitted a draft proposal to this effect in April, which, according to Isamaa deputy chairman Urmas Reinsalu would mean, "Firstly, Estonian citizens and citizens of the European Union should have the right to vote in local elections. Secondly, citizens of third countries would not have the right to vote."

Asked whether Isamaa would prefer EKRE as a coalition partner in order to support the bill, Reinsalu did not answer so precisely.

"Certainly it is an important issue, both in terms of security and for citizens to maintain control over power in the public arena. Especially in such a critical situation. It is an important issue, but I do not categorize it as a special issue, there are other important issues."

After proposing a similar draft bill in 2017, EKRE included promises to address the issue along the same lines in their program for the 2019 elections.

However, after forming a coalition with the Center Party, EKRE chairman Martin Helme said the concern was no longer relevant, due to the declining numbers of grey passport holders. Helme also said that raising the issue would cause serious conflict within the governing coalition.

Nevertheless, EKRE vice-chairman Jaak Madison, now insists that restricting voting rights (for non-Estonian and non-Estonian citizens) is still an important issue for the party.

"Let's take into account the fact that a third of Estonia's population lives in Tallinn, and that nearly half of Tallinn's population are Russian speakers, a very large proportion of whom are Russian citizens, " said Madison.

"If they are able to influence the development and future of our capital, this clearly does not in any way align with the spirit of the Estonian constitution, which aims to preserve the Estonian nation. I think that those citizens who have Russian passports in their pockets probably do not consider that the preservation of Estonia as a nation-state should be the ideal of Estonia."

However, even if EKRE and Isamaa are in agreement, the same unresolved concerns over the issue, which arose during the previous coalition, may return. The Center Party for instance, is against restricting voting rights.

"To start depriving someone, for example, an elderly man, of his right to vote because he hasn't passed a language exam is, in my opinion, unfair. This person may be completely loyal to the Estonian state, have raised his or her family here, contributed to society, to the livelihood of the Estonian state, and then the state comes along and announces that we are taking away the right to vote in local elections because we do not trust him or her in any way," said Tanel Kiik, deputy chairman of the Center Party.

"Our goal must be that the people living in the Republic of Estonia are all on the same side, on the side of Estonia. With these kinds of moves and decisions, we are in fact creating this division ourselves."

Nor is the idea likely to find support from members of the two remaining parliamentary parties.

In correspondence earlier this month, Justice Minister Maris Lauri (Reform) said, that the government would not support Isamaa's draft proposal. The ministry also highlighted that Isamaa's proposal would also mean 434 British, 120 Norwegian and 172 U.S. citizens losing the right to vote in local elections. Lauri added that, under the constitution, the current arrangement has been reached by choice.

Hanno Pevkur, also of the Reform Party, expressed doubt over whether such a change would be possible without amending the constitution.

"Of course, given the current security situation, emotionally, I would like to say that we are depriving all Russian citizens of the right to vote in local elections. However, we run a very high risk of getting into a constitutional dispute over this. I am not sure whether, in this case, constitutional review would not refer to article 156 of the Constitution, which states, that matters related to local life can be decided by a person who has permanent residence here. The Supreme Court would probably uphold that," Pevkur said.

Pevkur also warned that such a rigid decision could put Estonia's security at risk.

"We have a number of municipalities where, in fact, citizens of indeterminate nationality or even Russian citizens make up quite a large percentage of the [electorate]. We know (about) Narva, Sillamäe, Kohtla-Järve. We certainly have to make sure that we don't shoot ourselves in the foot."

Like Pevkur, SDE chair Lauri Läänemets says the issue is important, but Isamaa's proposed solution is not the right one.

"It will not increase (non-Estonian and non-EU citizens') loyalty to Estonia. I would put the question the other way round - how can we get more of these people to be loyal to Estonia? This would not be a complicated amendment, but then what? It is true that there would no longer be this influence on the local government through local elections, but how would this render the person more pro-Estonian? What's going on in people's minds is a big security risk, we should be dealing with that instead."

Läänemets does not offer to provide a solution, instead stressing that there is no quick and simple way to convince people with pro-Russian sympathies.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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