President Karis: Power of the majority cannot exacerbate social divides

President Alar Karis giving a speech at the inaugural sitting of the XV Riigikogu on Monday. April 10, 2023.
President Alar Karis giving a speech at the inaugural sitting of the XV Riigikogu on Monday. April 10, 2023. Source: Raigo Pajula/Office of the President

The power of the majority must not exacerbate social divides to the point where they are truly insurmountable. It is one thing to end up part of the minority, but quite another to feel that positions represented by the opposition don't even deserve to be discussed or taken seriously. That is one reason why the government cannot make endless use of the opportunity to tie passing laws to confidence votes, President Alar Karis said in a speech at the inaugural sitting of the XV Riigikogu on Monday.

The new Riigikogu is starting its work. I am sure we all sense the significance of this day. Over the next four years, decisions will have to be made in this hall in order to adapt to the life-changing events we are currently experiencing.

Voters have granted each of you a mandate to represent them. At the same time, the Constitution states that MPs are not bound by their mandate.

What does this mean? It means that each and every one of you bears the responsibility of representing the entire nation.

You must take all of the concerns raised during the elections into consideration. It's easy to list them in general terms: security; the economy; the cost of living; the climate; the protection of nature; education; local governments' ability to cope. And there are many others that may not immediately spring to mind but which are no less important — such as the development of technology, and young people's mental health, both of which I have spoken about and will continue to do so.

It has been said that politics is the art of the possible. However, we must be more ambitious than that: politics is also the art of doing that which is initially deemed impossible.

Estonia has reached the point where our aim isn't merely to catch up to others on the path ahead of us, but to find new paths to go down. Indeed, this is something we have no choice but to do. In a situation where the state's debt burden threatens to grow, our objective cannot be limited to saving where we can; our target must be to find opportunities for development that will boost efficiency and allow us to achieve more in the future than we are currently capable of achieving.

I agree with those who feel that economic growth is not the only measure of a country's well-being. But we must also see that economic growth depends on aspects that are rightly likewise emphasized: education; healthcare; a societal sense of security; effective climate policy; culture in the broadest sense; our people's mental health.

May creative people, people who are capable of and in creating, and a wise people be our pursuit — not seeking a balance between hard and soft values as though they were opposites.

Concerns can pave the way for us to make forward progress. As such, the increase in the cost of living forces us to ask whether there is sufficient competition in the Estonian economy. Thus it is worth thinking, in addition to price levels, about how we can spur innovation in the Estonian economy by increasing competition. The same is true of energy. Striving for security of supply has forced us to make difficult decisions, but let this be a push forward, toward new technological solutions, rather than just sticking with the old.

For you, members of the Riigikogu, this will mean a great deal of work.

I agree with Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise that a coalition agreement and a development plan is no substitute for a law. Not that this means we need as many laws as we can possibly create. On the contrary: the law must be used to build a framework — one that allows, for example, climate policy objectives to be achieved without undermining the stability of Estonia's economic environment, without anyone in the country suffering and ensuring that entrepreneurs have the confidence to make investments.

True, the coming years are unlikely to offer us the kind of reassurance we still enjoyed until very recently. Our language has gained a new word — kobarkriis ["cluster crisis"]. There is a lot of conjecture as to when the current crisis involving several fields will come to an end. I don't know. Nobody does. What may be a distinguishing characteristic of the uncertain times we've found ourselves in, however, is the fact that crisis and normalcy are no longer distinguishable as they once were.

I'm talking about this because we have to think of the role of parliament in a new way. As the government tends to come to the fore in crisis situations, there is a risk of the lawmaking parliament being sidelined altogether. Let us recall how the question was raised during the COVID pandemic as to whether the Riigikogu had been left out of weighty decisions altogether.

I believe that in order for political responsibility to function, the government must have the authority to make decisions freely enough that voters can judge whether this government's political direction proved successful or not. It is the Riigikogu's job to create sufficiently clear laws as guidance for the government.

Why is this so important? Surely the government could cope without a parliament. I recently browsed a book titled "The Activity of Government Institutions in 1935-36." It described in great detail just how active the government at the time was. True, the ministries were very busy dealing with economic and social and education policy and passing budgets and other laws. At first glance, it isn't even apparent that there was no functioning parliament in Estonia in 1935 and 1936.

President Alar Karis giving a speech at the inaugural sitting of the XV Riigikogu on Monday. April 10, 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi/Priit Mürk/ERR

No doubt there were those who thought that things were better this way: quicker, more efficient. I'm citing this extreme example to paint you a picture of a scenario to which no cluster crisis or fear thereof may be allowed to lead us.

Yes, unfettered decision-making may be quick and efficient. But parliamentary debate ensures that fundamental issues are debated publicly, comprehensively, and giving the opposition the chance to participate. In other words, with increased wisdom and responsibility.

Moreover, if you have to take the views of those who have ended up in the minority into account and answer to criticism, that produces a broader societal base for decisions.

Of course it would be nice to think that our democracy functioned in such a way that decisions adopted a majority in parliament — the body of representatives of the people — were accepted as binding by the entire nation. Recent years in Estonia and elsewhere have shown that this isn't necessarily the case. Social divides have arisen that are difficult to overcome and which all too often appear to preclude dialogue. But our democracy has also changed because our citizens are more critical, demanding more than before of decisions made by the government and parliament.

The power of the majority must not exacerbate social divides to the point where they are truly insurmountable. It is one thing to end up part of the minority, but quite another to feel that positions represented by the opposition don't even deserve to be discussed or taken seriously.

That is why one reason why the government cannot make endless use of the opportunity to tie passing laws to confidence votes. The role of the Riigikogu cannot be restricted to deciding whether there is trust in the government. At the same time, obstruction cannot hand veto power to the minority. If the lawful work of the parliament grinds to a halt, there is no point in the opposition striving for power either. The cost is then borne by the state as a whole, not just some party.

Thankfully our Constitution has found a good balancing point for combining parliamentary control and the government's capacity to act. In monitoring abidance with the Constitution, it is my goal as well is to protect both.

I say "mine too" because I am not the one who is the first who must check laws and their bills against the Constitution. This is done first and foremost by MPs themselves. Officials play an important part in this as well, which is why it has concerned me to hear that they have less and less time to dedicate to refining bills. This is a major red flag.

True, the crisis has forced us to hurry. But nevertheless, crisis or no crisis, hastily written laws cannot become the norm. When effort is put into a bill and it is considered for longer, then it won't be necessary to immediately start passing new laws to rectify weaknesses resulting from haste either.

A number of times now I have had to refuse to proclaim laws that have been passed by the Riigikogu. I don't consider these instances conflicts. After all, both parliament and the president are parts of the same system of government that must work together to achieve the best possible laws in Estonia.

My opinion on a law may not align with that of the majority of the Riigikogu, but it is precisely for such instances of disagreement that the president has been granted the right to make independent decisions. I have of course heard the argument that my most recent veto of a law was short-sighted. I picked up on this because my understanding of the Constitution is precisely the opposite — the principles of the Constitution convey what is important in the long term.

In its day-to-day work, the Riigikogu focuses on those issues that come up in life. From that perspective it may seem strange that the Constitution doesn't allow for something to be done that seemingly needs to be done quickly for the good of the state.

This is where you need an outside perspective in order to highlight the principles of lasting value of which we cannot lose sight even faced with pressing issues.

The security crisis we've ended up in multifaceted. There is the military, national defense facet, but there is also the facet of protecting the democratic rule of law. Estonia must be capable of demonstrating that a free and democratic state is stronger than one that suppresses freedom and democracy in the name of strength.

A strong state is one that is trusted by its citizens and that they view as their own. A significant threshold was exceeded in the recent elections — for the first time, more people voted electronically than on paper.

I agree with the Supreme Court [of Estonia] that in such circumstances in particular, the organization of electronic voting requires the legislature's careful consideration. Everything of importance pertaining to the organization of e-elections must be provided for by law, and it is the parliament's job to pass these laws. Supreme Court Chief Justice Villu Kõve rightly recalled that elections must not only be fair, but also appear fair.

Allow me to expand on that. According to the Constitution, the Estonian state is founded on liberty, justice and the rule of law. How can we ensure that everyone is confident that Estonia really is such a country? We have many choices ahead of us in which one will consider one thing just, another something else, and a third, yet something else.

The security crisis will entail further difficult choices. Security-related choices must likewise be made pursuant to the law, and the Riigikogu can ensure that everything significant is taken into consideration therein. Ultimately, the position supported by the majority will prevail. But others must also be able to see that their voice, arguments and concerns have been considered as well.

Now, honorable Riigikogu, let us preserve liberty, justice and the rule of law.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Aili Vahtla

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: