There are two sides to the demand for greater voter participation. On the one hand, currently concerning the law on registered partnership, it is a question of getting rid of the existing legislation. The other concerns a way for the Estonian people to adopt new legislation.
For the sake of this article, I’ll assume a grassroots initiative, ie. a way for the Estonian people to suggest New legislation – will be part of the direct democratic extension of the system.
I am an optimist, and for some reason I think it would be wrong to make direct democracy only negative action. A positive instrument is needed to make this whole idea really work.
Quick overview: what it takes and why
Any movement by voters towards a change in the law of the land must be legally sealed. This means that a system must be in place to regulate the way in which referendums are organized. Here are the steps:
- The initiators file their amendment text with the Chancellor of Justice.
- The Chancellor examines the amendment and accepts or rejects it.
- The initiators collect the signatures within a specified time frame.
- The Chancellor (or another authority) checks their authenticity.
- The Riigikogu debates the amendment, supports it or proposes an alternative.
- The citizens vote.
- The president signs the amendment into the law.
This is all a lot more complicated than you might think. So let’s take a closer look at direct democratic Estonia.
Step 1: The initiators submit the desired text or proposed law
A number of initiators (to be determined by law) come together with one idea: they want to get rid of the law on registered partnership. To achieve this, they must submit a proposal to repeal the law.
It is important to define what exactly this proposal should be. An example: suppose I can get enough people together to demand that we get rid of the speed cameras. How do we do that? We cannot simply reject the Traffic Act. We need a more sophisticated approach.
In practice, this means that the initiators must have a legally exploitable text. With speed cameras, it could be the Traffic Act without cameras, or some other modified version.
Step 2: The Chancellor of Justice examines it
Because any new legislation must be constitutional and, in the case of an amendment requested by the people, must also meet other conditions (such as its feasibility, its compatibility with international treaties and agreements, etc.), the proposal submitted is now subject to review.
The manifest authority in Estonia to carry out such a review is the Office of the Chancellor of Justice.
Step 3: the initiators collect the signatures
Once the text of the amendment has been accepted, the initiators then have a specific time limit to collect the signatures.
With roughly the same percentages as in Switzerland, where the system has been in place for over a century, in Estonia it would represent 8,000 to 10,000 signatures to table a proposal for a new law, and some 50,000 to repeal. an existing one.
Why does the barrier have to be higher to reject a law? Simple: if we set it too low, the authorities will be inundated with populist demands. Do you remember the speed cameras? Or what about income tax, VAT, exhaust gas standards for vintage cars? Compulsory education? Baltic train? You set that bar too low, and you really have a party.
At the same time, the bar for introducing new ideas must be low, in order to encourage positive civic action. If you put this one too high, you leave access to this political instrument only to the rich and powerful, and a lot of good ideas might never get anywhere.
So now our initiators are in the streets and on social media in Estonia, collecting their 50,000 signatures.
Step 4: signatures are verified
This is where Estonia is predestined for direct democracy. Unlike good old Switzerland, where a small army of officials will now begin to sample petition sheets for the authenticity of citizens’ signatures on paper, Estonia will have the best part ready with a click of a button.
Of course, some signatures on paper will still have to be verified, and that will cost money. Democratic participation comes at a price that citizens, for the sake of their own power, will have to learn to ignore.
Step 5: The Riigikogu debates an amendment, supports it or presents a counter-proposal
Then, the Riigikogu debates the proposed repeal of the law on registered partnership. Will repealing it affect other laws, an international treaty, everything that needs to be regulated at the parliamentary level?
Is there a softer approach, a middle way that the initiators did not take? Can it be combined with something else?
Whether the Riigikogu should be allowed to present a counter-proposal is an important question. I have seen the chaos that a referendum can cause which does not take international treaties into account, for example, with the example of the Swiss system.
Only the national parliament has the overview and the expertise to reach a compromise. Remember that we are not doing this exercise just for the registered partnership law. There will be other problems, potentially much bigger. Joining the EU or NATO comes to mind.
If the national parliament supports the initiators, a counter-proposal may not be necessary. But if so, ordinary parliamentary procedure will produce one.
At this point we are ready for the vote.
Step 6: Estonian citizens vote on the amendment and the counter-proposal
Then, either the State Electoral Service or the Chancellery of the Riigikogu, depending on the approach to be adopted, sets a date for the referendum.
Estonians are now voting on one or two (in the case of an additional counter-proposal) of the specific amendments to the law. This is of decisive importance: look at the UK and its Brexit mess, caused by the insipid, imprecise and vague question posed to its constituents.
It is therefore absolutely essential that the question be precise. You, as an Estonian citizen, can answer ‘yes’ or’ ” ” if you are asked whether or not you want to see a text presented to you promulgated into law. It is only with this level of detail that it is possible to justify asking you directly.
(If you don’t want that kind of accountability, or if you think it’s too complicated or too picky, then you should leave the job of repealing and making laws to your parliament.)
Step 7: the president signs the amendment to the law
So here we are. The wet dream of the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and the Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition (SAPTK) has come true, and Estonian society wins a landslide victory over an otherwise quite low-key minority.
It remains only for President Kersti Kaljulaid to enact it – a final step which is the final check of the new legislation, as the President can always refuse to enact the law and send it back to Ms Madise for further scrutiny. .
And that’s all. The people have spoken.
Populism, public opinion and endless debate
The formidable challenge for lawmakers to come up with this streamlined process for Estonia is just the start.
With direct democracy, you have to take a very careful look at the path you are about to take. Because as soon as MM. Helme, Helme and Vooglaid will have emptied their champagne flutes, the next group of initiators will meet, this time to propose the outright introduction of same-sex marriage.
Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is true in politics as everywhere else. The introduction of a system of initiative and referendum will be a revolutionary event in the history of this country.
And, moreover, also the beginning of an era when political debate will be everywhere, all the time, forever. If after reading this article you have more questions about direct democracy than when you first started, imagine what will happen once you are free to choose the topic you want to see debated. The same will happen every time someone brings an amendment forward for consideration.
The advantage of this system is that in the future important decisions will be based on a real social consensus, and not on party politics. And this is something that Estonia today seems to badly need.
But consider that while a referendum may soon see the repeal of the registered partnership law, it will also trigger a broader debate in society – a debate that could potentially result in more liberal legislation much sooner than one thinks. the ultra-conservative group of family values. .
Dario Cavegn is Editor-in-Chief at ERR News. He was born and raised in Switzerland, where, since he was 18 in 2000, he has participated in more than 150 votes on topics such as VAT, pension policy, international treaties, the rights of religious minorities and the immigration, among others. He has lived in Estonia since 2006.