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Beginning this year, MPs allowed to simultaneously serve on local councils

Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Urve Palo (SDE).
Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Urve Palo (SDE). Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR)

A change of Estonia's election laws that entered into force early this year allows members of the Riigikogu to run and actually hold local council seats as well. With the exception of government members, they can then be active on both the local and the national level.

Until early this year, it wasn't possible for a politician to be a member of the Riigikogu, Estonia's national parliament, as well as of a local council. They could run for either position while holding the other, but had to decide which one to give up after the election.

This is different now. Now, a politician can be a member of both at the same time, an arrangement that has been a cause for sharp criticism. Mart Helme, chairman of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), sees it as an attempt to bring local government into line with national politics.

Helme: Local government undermined and brought in line with state

"The Constitution says that local government is autonomous. Yes, autonomy doesn't disappear when MPs are included in the work of local councils, but we don't live in an ideal world," Helme wrote in summer 2016 in a note of protest by EKRE's parliamentary group.

"A situation can easily develop where matters of local importance are decided in the interest of the central government rather than looking at local needs," he added. The law also put independents and local election coalitions at a serious disadvantage.

"It's clear that a politician who is known all across the country running for a local seat undermines local election coalitions and those who are contributing a lot to life in the local community. This distorts the image of politics as well as political decisions," Helme said.

Palo: New law brings local and national politics closer together

Social Democrat and Estonia's Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Urve Palo disagrees. According to Palo, the opportunity for an MP to be part of local as well as national politics brings the two aspects of life in the country closer together.

Palo brings up the example of her own local community, Viimsi Municipality, adjacent to the city Tallinn, where she is running for the position of vallavanem, or municipal mayor [translated as "rural municipality mayor" in the official Estonian term database, -ed.], the leading position on the local council.

Though as a member of the national government Palo couldn't actually take office if elected, she says that she won't be a minister forever, and that what is happening in her own local community matters a lot to her. Being in parliament and on a local council at the same time would mean that both elected bodies could profit: parliament because it is less likely to lose touch, and the local council because it is better informed about coming legislation and politics at the national level.

This will eventually mean an exchange takes place that makes the work of both sides of Estonian politics more effective and more aware of one another, the minister thinks.

Potential for abuse remains

Helme's pessimistic comment about this not being an ideal world, and the not so small matter of the role of political idealism remains. Almost all parties have used their most famous names to whip up votes for a particular local list — with some of the leading candidates getting thousands of personal votes, only to then decline the position they won and let someone further down the list take office.

In the past, the election law itself was the best excuse: it was illegal to be part of two elected bodies at once. The upcoming elections on Oct. 15 will show how committed the parties' leading politicians are to the local level.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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