Toomas Sildam: Are Estonian political parties criminal? No ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Journalist Toomas Sildam.
Journalist Toomas Sildam. Source: Sander Koit/ERR

Should people who have previously been punished for minor criminal offences be barred from joining political parties in Estonia? Journalist Toomas Sildam doesn't think so.

Is someone who received a criminal punishment for drink-driving eight years ago and has since learned from it suited to work as a doctor? What a strange question, many people say with a shrug, let them work. Or should this same person be allowed to work as a teacher? Let's not punish them for their university-era sins, many would likely say, taking a permissive attitude.

But this opinion doesn't seem to apply to those who belong to political parties. Quite the opposite; the media combed through a database of court rulings and found hundreds of criminally convicted people who are members of political parties. Lists of these people were published in the media: a total of 1,926 people, the punishments of 942 of which had expired.

What do these numbers tell us? That the political parties are criminal? Of course not. One does not have to think that someone convicted years ago of drink-driving, for example, should have to carry that burden together with their family for decades to come. On the contrary, it would be reasonable to allow them to heal. That would be incredibly reasonable. And it shouldn't become an obstacle upon joining a political party.

Of course, if someone runs for election to the Riigikogu or a local government council or agrees to take on the role of minister, they have to take into consideration and come to terms with the likelihood that their entire life will be examined under a microscope, and even a onetime criminal punishment will be brought up. Even if it had already expired.

Estonia is one of few countries where political party membership is public information in the first place. In plenty of quite democratic countries, people's political convictions — as evidenced also by party membership — are not the object of public scrutiny. Highlighting this does not constitute a call to close party member lists off to the public. Belonging to a party, however, cannot serve as justification for people's onetime mistakes, including criminal mistakes of the less serious kind, becoming millstones around their necks or doors slammed shut that would prevent them from moving on with their lives.

But extortionists, sex offenders, perpetrators of domestic violence and killers, even those whose punishments have expired — these people I truly don't want to see belonging to Estonian political parties. People who have been punished for such crimes should have enough sense themselves to realise that by joining their favourite party, they will bring their party nothing but trouble and a bad aura.

Should political parties as nonprofit headquarters have to turn into background check bureaus when accepting new members, running checks on potential new members against all possible databases and registers? Perhaps it might be enough to ask on the application whether someone is carrying an active criminal punishment or have they ever, and if so, what for, and if someone responds no or explains their prior mistake, then they are trusted, as people, as a rule, don't lie.

If they lie, however, and the lie comes to light, then they would be kicked out of the party. Nothing complicated.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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