Helir-Valdor Seeder: Reform would do well to end voting rights games

Helir-Valdor Seeder.
Helir-Valdor Seeder. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The ruling party's recent steps toward revoking the right to vote of Russian and Belarusian citizens raise serious doubts in terms of their motivation to really solve this particular security issue, former Isamaa head Helir-Valdor Seeder writes.

The Reform Party launched yet another performance to pull the wool over people's eyes in Minister of Justice Kalle Laanet's announcement of plans to strip Russian and Belarusian citizens of the right to vote in local elections. The true purpose of the initiative is to make it look like the government is aiming to revoke the voting rights of citizens of aggressor states, while it just isn't possible because of pushback from coalition partners.

The government is also looking to divert attention from the uncomfortable and confusing confrontation in the scandal of the presidential office's funding and the promulgation of laws being tied to alleged attempts of blackmail. Both sides are playing a game of blind man's bluff, throwing around accusations, while refusing to present evidence that allegedly exists.

Law enforcement is content to just look on at these unconstitutional acts taking place at the highest level. All of it amounts to a national security threat, as do promises in the coalition agreement that were never meant to be kept.

Reform have not taken a single concrete step

The fact that citizens of aggressor states can vote in local elections is a security threat that goes far beyond the borders of individual local governments. The latter are responsible for the future of our children through schools, county plans and relevant restrictions, as well as electing the president in the Electoral College etc.

Rapid and decisive action is required. Unfortunately, recent years have shown that the Reform Party prefers grand speeches and propagandist initiatives followed by shrugs and pointing the finger at bystanders.

Isamaa introduced amendments to revoke the right to vote in local elections of citizens of non-EU countries immediately after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in April of 2022. Then Justice Minister Maris Lauri (Reform) ruled out the possibility of the bill being supported, which saw the initiative shelved. As head of Isamaa at the time, I assured that the party was ready to seek flexible and expedient compromises should other parliamentary parties come up with functional alternatives.

We also offered another solution in allowing citizens of non-EU countries that respect democracy and international law with which Estonia enters into a corresponding agreement to also vote in local elections. Once again, Reform shot down the proposal.

A few months later, we raised the matter again during coalition talks between Reform, Eesti 200 and the Social Democrats. Instead of trying to convince the latter to drop its opposition to the plan, Reform preferred to remain a silent onlooker.

These antics seem to have made their way into the government. The coalition agreement's rather vague phrasing suggests the matter is not a priority for the Reform Party or its partners. The promise to put together a "framework" for "suspending" the voting rights without having to amend the constitution will never become law or take away the right to vote of aggressor states' citizens.

The Social Democrats have declared that they are not willing to amend the constitution (even if it is necessary to ensure national security). The Reform Party knows that suspending voting rights is a bluff and cannot be done in Estonia without amending the constitution. Keeping the pot boiling on this inconvenient matter, roping in all manner of experts and generally playing the "security game" without reaching a solution is the solution.

Amendment needed post haste

The justice minister's recent initiative (a propagandist message to the media) from which the ministry has already distanced itself (!) amounts to gambling with security and pulling the wool over the public's eyes. The minister knows full well that legislative intent from the ministry or expedited procedure direct from the cabinet could be used if there was real political will to get it done. A corresponding bill could also be initiated in the Riigikogu, which is already processing Isamaa's bill, and which would also be fastest.

Allow me to recall that we have seen very expedient action from this government when it comes to slashing family benefits, introducing tax hikes and new taxes some of which will not enter into force until 2025. The recent glacial pace in security matters comes off downright cynical in this context.

We need to make rapid progress in the matter of voting rights. Local government elections are scheduled to take place two years from now, and it's good practice not to amend voting laws a year before elections. Isamaa's legal analysis, on which our bill to amend the Local Government Elections Act is based, finds that constitutional amendments are not needed to pass the law. However, it is probable that the Supreme Court will also have to shape a position on the matter, which will take more time.

Should it turn out that the Constitution does need amending, this would bring a new set of time-consuming processes as there needs to be at least three months between the first and second readings and another month at least between the second and third. There are two options for the third reading of constitutional amendments. It is possible to hold a referendum, which would once again take time, or process the matter as urgent. The latter needs at least 81 votes to pass (in the 101-member Riigikogu – ed.) and should the Social Democrats team up with the Center Party in placing their political interests above national security, it would be possible for them to sink the amendment.

Had the Reform Party agreed to revoking the right to vote of aggressor states' citizens during the time of the previous Riigikogu, the law would already be in effect; alternatively constitutional amendments could have been handled by two consecutive Riigikogu composition where the Social Democrats and Center would no longer have the option of sabotaging it.

I suggest Reform stop pursuing propaganda campaigns and set about finding common ground in the parliament to enable broad-based cooperation at least in national security matters and promote the parliament's ability to work together more broadly. It is time to graduate from words to action. Estonia's national security is not a game.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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