Revoking right to vote of third country citizens could be unconstitutional

Ülle Madise.
Ülle Madise. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Should the Riigikogu revoke the right to vote in local elections of third country citizens permanently residing in Estonia as proposed by an Isamaa bill, Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise will very probably launch constitutional review proceedings in the parliament and the Supreme Court if necessary.

The explanatory memorandum of draft legislation proposed by Isamaa reads that the aim of the bill is to revoke the right to vote at local elections of foreigners in Estonia (with the exception of EU citizens).

Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise writes in a comment sent to the Riigikogu Constitutional Committee that Isamaa's bill would considerably change how the Republic of Estonia has over the last 30 years viewed the local community, stateless people permanently and legally residing in Estonia and their participation in local affairs.

"It is my position that should draft legislation be passed in its current form, constitutional review proceedings would be in order to seek the Supreme Court's position on constitutionality. While there are arguments in support of revoking the right to vote in the proposed manner, I find that arguments pointing to a conflict between [bill] 594 SE and § 156, subsection 2 and § 9, subsection 1 of the Constitution outweigh them," the justice chancellor noted.

§ 156 of the Constitution provides that "in elections to local authority councils, the right to vote is held, pursuant to conditions prescribed by law, by persons who reside permanently in the territory of the local authority and have attained sixteen years of age." § 9 provides that "the rights, freedoms and duties of all persons and of everyone, as set out in the Constitution, apply equally to citizens of Estonia and to citizens of foreign states and stateless persons in Estonia."

The justice chancellor's reply also reveals the actual number of third-country citizens who turned out to vote. The relative importance of the Russian and Belarusian citizens' vote (5,783 people) was just 0.98 percent at the previous local elections.

Citizens of the Russian Federation only just form the majority of voters with third-country citizenship in Estonia (around 70,000 out of a total of 139,000 people), followed by citizens of Ukraine, Belarus and the United Kingdom. The 2021 local elections registered 62,585 stateless voters.

Of Russian citizens with the right to vote in Estonia, 8.1 percent participated in the 2021 local elections. This was 6.8 percent for citizens of Belarus, 8.7 for Ukraine and 20.3 for the UK. 9 percent of stateless persons voted.

Out of all third-country citizens and stateless persons (139,000), 12,001 people or 8.6 percent exercised their right to vote last year.

A total of 587,359 votes were cast at elections of which the votes of Russian and Belarusian citizens made up 0.98 percent.

Isamaa finds, in the bill's explanatory memo, that the right to vote of some third-country nationals has become a matter of national security.

"Based on public records, 13 EU countries do not give third-country residents the right to vote. They include Latvia where the relative importance of such residents is greater than in Estonia. Other examples include France and Germany," the memo reads.

The bill was introduced by Isamaa MPs Tarmo Kruusimäe, Helir-Valdor Seeder, Priit Sibul, Andres Metsoja, Heiki Hepner, Raivo Tamm, Üllar Saaremäe and Mihhail Lotman.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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