Direct democracy voter thresholds could be 25,000

Jaak Valge.
Jaak Valge. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) newly-elected MP and associate professor of history at the University of Tartu Jaak Valge thinks that the threshold for bringing popular initiatives to a public vote could be 25,000. Here, he looks at the hurdles that would need clearing before such a direct democracy system could become reality.

''Personally I think 25,000 votes is ideal – not so low that any whacky proposals find their way in, but not so high that the public would find the process too difficult to realise in actuality,'' Mr Valge told ERR's Estonian news on Monday.

According to Mr Valge, setting such a threshold means once a certain number of public signatures to a proposal has been met, and their authenticity checked, the Riigikogu can adopt the desire amendments, thus meaning a ''people's initiative'' has been successfully implemented.

If, however, the Riigikogu rejects an initiative, EKRE would have it sent to a referendum, Mr Valge said. Before the referendum, campaigning on both sides of the issue would be permitted, and the Riigikogu would be obliged to enact any changes the referendum result signalled, in Mr Valge's vision.

Voter turnout thresholds in such referendums is also an important question, Mr Valge argued. In many countries, the voter turnout threshold is in the 30-50% range (ie. a voter turnout below that would not make a referendum result binding) but in some countries, there are no thresholds at all, Mr Valge said.

Bar set higher when amending constitution

The voter turnout threshold for constitutional amendments would be necessarily even higher, Mr Valge said, as this was not simply a question of amending a law. The constitution also protects minority rights, he said.

Such public initiatives would not appear willy-nilly, then, and would also likely be birthed by groups of activists, in the case of amending a law or introducing a new law, Mr Valge finds. This would need some kind of snowballing effect from that original core support, for the proposal to make its way to parliament.

''Let's say there's a group of activists, speaking on behalf of a community, proposing a legal amendment or a completely new piece of legislation. Once the proposal is ready, they formalise it by collecting a few thousand signatures – say 3,000 for a bill, 5,000 for constitutional amends etc.'' he said.

If the initiative is thus found acceptable, it then goes to the public in order to amass more signatures. If a certain number of signatures are accrued over a set period of time – say 25,000-50,000 in six months – the process goes on to the next stage; if not, it is deadlocked.

''It would be good if the potential coalition talks came to fruition, and that this coalition established such methods of getting initiatives through,'' said Mr Valge.

''However, details on how the process would look in actuality is a big question and would require plenty of reviewing. It should be done very thoroughly and carefully,'' he emphasised.

With the opportunities afforded by e-voting and digital signatures, the thresholds may be raised even higher, Mr Valge thinks, and this is simply a matter of making a decision.

He also stated that EKRE is not opposed to e-voting in principle, but is anxious to ensure its security and transparency.

Constitutional amends needed to introduce public initiatives

According to Mr Valge, the introduction of a people's initiative in a form such as EKRE proposes would require a change in the Constitution, for which it would be more realistic in the current situation to utlise the possibility that the two successive members of the Riigikogu approve it.

''This could be done via a referendum, and right now,'' he says.

''But this would require three-fifths, or 61 MPs, to support going to a referendum. I'm not certain that right now there would be that required 61 MP-support in the current Riigikogu makeup,'' he goes on.

The current Centre Party/EKRE/Isamaa lineup, if it became actuality, would have a majority of 57, assuming all MPs voted in line with the move.

According to the current Constitution, the Constitution can be amended in three ways: by a law passed by a referendum, by two consecutive configurations of the Riigikogu or by an Act approved by the Riigikogu as an urgent matter.

The five-party XIV Riigikogu is due to convene on Thursday, 4 April; the six-party XIII Riigikogu (the Free Party returned no MPs to the XIV) was dissolved about a week before the 3 March general election.

In order to satisfy requirements for the second option, consecutive Riigikogu sessions, the bill amending the constitution, must get a majority of MPs at the Riigikogu, and then the next Riigikogu session must also get a three-fifths majority for the amendment, then the act has been passed.

In the case of the third option, there must be a four-fifths majority (ie 81 or more from the 101-seat Riigikogu) to start the process of the amendment to the constitution as a matter of urgency, which must then pass with a two-thirds majority (67 or more), according to Mr Valge.

Minorities are protected by high thresholds

The argument in favour of establishing such people's initiative methods of direct democracy are, Mr Valge says, helping to prevent political alienation and ensuring that the legislature cannot make decisions which go against the majority of the populace.

''The very existence of this mechanism in and of itself circumvents a situation where parliament would make a decision which the majority does not like,'' Mr Valge says.

At the same time, having sufficiently high voter thresholds, twinned with public awareness, should prevent the majority from undermining minority rights.

''The biggest buffer is the awareness of the majority of our citizens – it is by no means possible that we start going beyond the limits for minorities,'' he says.

''The legal buffer is, however, such that an amendment to the constitution, where the rights of minorities, civil rights, and personal freedoms, which have been established, have been made more robust. Any draft which actually restricted the rights of minorities would have to be a constitutional amendment, but it is difficult to amend the constitution, precisely because of the higher voter thresholds needed to amend it,'' says Mr Valge.

Mart Helme, EKRE chair, said on Sunday that an agreement had been reached in the EKRE-IKE coalition talks, on the issue of the introduction of popular initiatives. Speaking on TRE Radio, Mr Helme named a figure of 50,000 in popular initiative thresholds. Via such initiatives, EKRE aims to be able to implement those political goals which have not made it through the current coalition talks.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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