Alar Karis: Democracy does not end with parliamentary majority

President Alar Karis giving a speech in the Riigikogu.
President Alar Karis giving a speech in the Riigikogu. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

President of the Republic at the opening sitting of the Riigikogu fall session on September 11, 2023.

Honorable members of the Riigikogu,

Dear guests,

Five months ago, the last time I stood here before you, spring was in the air and, looking ahead, I talked about the challenges you face. I talked about security, the economy, the cost of living, education, protecting nature.

These tasks have neither disappeared nor become less urgent. The Estonian state must be modern enough to cope with them. And yet, the mood has changed by today, and many are probably wondering how fit for work the Estonian parliament will be in the autumn. Your first task is to show that the parliament has the ability to work. 

The past five months have forced us to reflect on our governance as a whole. Is the foundation strong enough? This question has accompanied us in building our state since the Constitution was written – not as a sign of hesitation or uncertainty, but as a reminder that we need a working state to move forward.

When the constitution was being drafted, there were heated debates about how much power the president should have. Today, however, we can still say that a president with a balancing role suits Estonia. Above all, this balancing concerns the relationship between the parliament and the government.

What has the relationship between the Riigikogu and the government in Estonia become like in today's democracy? Jüri Kaljuvee, who served as an expert in the Constitutional Assembly, argued a few years ago that instead of a powerful president, Estonia got a government that is hungry for power. According to him, the government in Estonia has steadily expanded its power and has become a body that determines policy.

I am guided by two principles: for the state to function and to solve the tasks facing the state, it must be possible to govern, and for this the Government of the Republic must have sufficient freedom of action, but the second principle is that governance must be democratic – transparent, reasoned and subject to parliamentary control.

In other words, democracy does not end when a majority is received in parliamentary elections. The governing political parties must have the opportunity to implement their program, but in a way that is compatible with the rule of law.

It is clear that there is some tension between these principles. For example, the committee of investigation of the Riigikogu may get in the way of the government, but that is no reason to reduce the parliament's possibilities to investigate. Or another example: a flexible budget that only mentions lines of action makes it easier for the government to work.

However, the parliament's control over government spending is reduced when the budget becomes opaque because its presentation is too general. All of this may look like inhibition and restraint from the government's point of view. But it is part of democracy.

However, without governance, there is no functioning state. There would also be no point for the opposition to fight for power if this did not offer the promise to implement an alternative program. This is why the Constitution gives the government a number of important levers to protect its ability to work.

One of these levers is the possibility of linking a draft law to the question of trust. This way, it is possible to avoid a situation where the Riigikogu does not have the majority to express lack of trust in the government and form a new government, but the work of the government is still made impossible by obstructing the draft laws essential for the implementation of the program of the Government of the Republic. 

As the Constitution was drafted, it was already noted that linking drafts to the issue of confidence could become a solution of convenience for the government, essentially shutting parliament out of the life of the state. There is no doubt that such an exaggeration would be contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.

Although the Constitution does not draw a precise line here – and it would be impossible to draw one anyway – I am of the opinion that only those draft laws can be linked to the issue of confidence without which the government could not even carry out the core of its program. Blocking such draft laws in the Riigikogu would be tantamount to forcing the government to resign, although there are not enough votes to express lack of confidence in the government. As I said, this is a situation that our Constitution was meant to avoid.

On the other hand, the opposition also needs levers to play its role, especially when the government threatens to overstep constitutional limits with the support of a parliamentary majority.

I have already said that if the work of the Riigikogu gets bogged down by obstruction, the Riigikogu itself must find a solution. But a simple principle applies here: don't do to others what you don't want done to you. Today's majority must implement the rules of procedure of the Riigikogu in such a way that the chosen solution would be recognized as fair and reasonable even when it ended up being the minority.

Only a law that has been thought through, that is based on reliable data and studies, and that has withstood criticism is fit for a democratic state.

By democracy, I also mean informed and critical citizens, whose trust is not only won by a majority in parliament and a government pointing at its election win – who expect, for every law they have to obey, that the state has made it wisely and carefully. Classification of documents that justify – or criticize – draft laws does not increase the trust of citizens.

When the process of creating a law has been transparent, citizens will have more confidence that it has not been passed in the interests of a few companies or interest groups, that the justifications that accompany the law are not just a sham. 

Free debate is also part of democracy. Hate speech cannot be defined so broadly that it also includes criticism of political beliefs. Sadly, it often happens that criticism of political positions tends to become personal. A good debate culture condemns personal attacks that create nothing of value.

However, the fact that an act deserves condemnation does not necessarily mean that the state can prohibit it under threat of punishment. When defining the term "hate speech," it must be kept in mind that, alongside European Union law, we are also bound by the Estonian Constitution.

The rule of law, increasing the political role of the parliament and society, is not obstruction of government, but a way to make policy more targeted and effective. It is only through trial and error, comparing different solutions, that we will see whether the government's proposed draft is actually the best way to achieve its goal.

This question is particularly relevant to security as our priority. I am glad to see that we are serious about defending our country. In early spring, you approved a new document on the fundamentals of our security policy, which sets out our defense priorities for the coming years, including setting the level of defense spending at 3 percent of GDP. A consensus between parties on setting these directions is important, because it gives society as a whole a sense of security and reassurance that there is a long-term vision for developing national defense.

As we know, national defense is not only about modern weapons, barracks and a high fence at the border, but also about people: regular and conscript soldiers, volunteers and reservists of the Defense League; police and rescue workers; border guards and all the others on whose conscientiousness and team spirit the defense and security of our country depends.

Transnational defense action plans, population protection infrastructure or civilian crisis exercises are important practical steps that show that the broad scope of national defense and the broad approach to security do not remain mere slogans.

However, preserving the fundamental rules of statehood is part of national defense and it worries me when a ministry finds it necessary to classify a legal assessment that calls into question the constitutionality of a proposed draft law.

I do not want to dwell on the dispute over whether the Constitution allows for the deprivation of Russian and Belarusian citizens of the right to vote at local elections. Instead, my question today is whether we could guarantee our security better by treating each person individually, focusing on the real, perceived threat – rather than casting suspicion on a general group whose members do not seem to deserve to be treated as individuals making personal choices.

Dividing people into groups in this way was characteristic of another power.

Dear Riigikogu,

It would be easy to call for your unanimity, but after the latest meetings with the leaders of all parliamentary parties, it would seem hollow. I do hope, however, that the confrontation in the Riigikogu will become a working one, as it should be in a parliament of a country with differing opinions, which does not get stuck but is able to move forward.

And another observation. Society is constantly changing, becoming increasingly more demanding and no longer content with the old way of governing.

I wish you well in your work.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

Source: Office of the President

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