Reform chief whip: Main election issue was security not marriage equality

Mart Võrklaev (Reform) speaks at a Stenbock House press conference.
Mart Võrklaev (Reform) speaks at a Stenbock House press conference. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

According to the chief whip of the Reform Party's Riigikogu group Mart Võrklaev, the party is in favor of adopting the implementation legislation for the Registered Partnership Act. Speaking on ETV show Esimene Stuudio, Võrklaev said, that the main issue during the recent Riigikogu election campaign had been security, not marriage equality.

The Reform Party's chief Riigikogu whip Mart Võrklaev said, that the ongoing coalition talks, which involve Reform, Eesti 200 and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) have been constructive so far.

"We have been negotiating for three weeks, and those negotiations have been thorough and substantive. Each party has its own wishes, which were put forward in our respective election manifestoes, so we know what to expect from each other," said Võrklaev.

Võrklaev explained, that the parties have been going through all the relevant issues sector by sector.  This has naturally resulted in discussions related to funding, and how best to use it.

"We have two challenges," said Võrklaev, "First, the election pledges. That is, what each party thinks is most important and what they want to do over four years. Then, what can be done about those things. Because we are in a difficult situation when it comes to the budget, we also have to decide how to improve that and that is quite a big challenge," he explained.

Over the next four years, there will be over €6 billion in EU funds available to the Estonian government.

"There is so much scope for reform, for environmental reforms, for digitalizing our whole lives and for making the economy smarter," Võrklaev said.

The Reform Chief Whip said, that how best to use the money remaining in the budget for the period which is now coming to an end, is challenging.  This is particularly the case, as it is necessary to ensure that the money not only goes into the Estonian economy to improve people's lives, but also that it can be used to support environmental reforms.

One issue where the coalition has yet to reach agreement, is the possible closure of smaller schools in Estonia's municipalities. According to Võrklaev, a lot of it comes down to broader questions of financing for local governments. One option would be to give local governments greater autonomy over land taxes, which would then enable them to increase their own revenues.

"We've also been discussing the fact that the gap between the richer and less rich municipalities has widened. We need to discuss how to even out the revenue base, because the state cannot put so much money into it," said Võrklaev.

"There is no agreement there yet. I'm sure a lot of municipal leaders are asking what that means, but we are discussing that. What is clear is that we need to make changes in that area" he said.

In Võrklaev's view, local governments need to be trusted and allowed to make decisions about how to use the money they receive from land taxes. "We also need to agree with the locals, that if we start building a new kindergarten or school, maybe we will contribute more to the land tax for a few years," said Võrklaev. 

The new coalition agreement is due to be signed after the election results have been confirmed and the new Riigikogu has convened. "The feeling today is, that it will take more than a week for us to get to that stage, but there's nothing we can do about that directly," he said.

The candidate for the role of Riigikogu Speaker will be announced at the end of the coalition talks. The distribution of seats in the Riigikogu will also be agreed at that time. "(As I am) participating in (coalition) negotiations for the third time, (I can say), that's really just the way it is," said Võrklaev.

"There is a simple reason for that. When we negotiate, we are looking at the life of the country from top to bottom. In fact, there has to be the understanding that we are treating every issue equally. When we agree on something, the best decisions in each area are those that this coalition thinks are best. If everyone was already at the table as ministers and fighting for their own areas, then these kinds of agreements would not be reached," he said.

The parties are also yet to come to an agreement on the issue of marriage equality.

"The Reform Party has been in favor of the Registered Partnership Act since 2012, and the implementation of legislation for the Registered Partnership Act, which essentially gives equal rights to people in this target group. In fact, we have these implementing laws, they have been developed and they give people equal rights and equal guarantees, both regarding registering marriages and cohabitation." said Võrklaev.

According to Võrklaev, for the first time since the adoption of the Registered Partnership Act, it is now possible to also rubber-stamp the related implementing legislation.

"If you look at the elections, this was not the main issue, it was security. However, the Reform Party received a strong mandate to adopt the implementing legislation for the Registered Partnership Act, and I sincerely hope that we will be able to get it done during this Riigikogu. Perhaps it will be the first thing to get done," said Võrklaev.

However, Eesti 200 and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) are still pushing for marriage equality. On the other hand, Võrklaev recalled a draft initiated by a coalition of the Center Party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa to hold a referendum on how the concept of marriage is defined in the Estonian Constitution.

"It included repealing the law on cohabitation and turning minority rights on their head. Today, our society is split in half," said Võrklaev.

"I think, that when security was the main theme of the elections and nothing has improved in this area, we are in difficult times. If we take it one step at a time, go ahead with implementing legislation and then at some point, as society matures, we move onto marriage equality, if there is a readiness for that. I think that is the wiser thing to do today and that is what the Reform Party has been given the mandate for," Võrklaev added.

One of Reform's main promises during the election campaign was to put a stop to major tax increases. "Today, it is impacting our middle classes and so we want to eradicate this injustice," said Võrklaev. "I believe that we will achieve that in the next four years, though we still have a lot of work to do on that score," he said.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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