Liberal Estonia Put to Test

mariusz kluzniak via // CC 2.0

In what a few years ago would have seemed an unfathomable turn of events, the current Estonian government is set to hold a nonbinding referendum in the spring of 2021 to solidify the definition of marriage as being between a man and woman.

The supposed need for a referendum on marriage has been a rallying cry of the current coalition government consisting of the Estonian Centre Party, Pro Patria and Conservative People’s Party of Estonia. However, the first public motion for a possible referendum on the Registered Partnerships Act was introduced in 2014 by then-Chairman of Pro Patria and current Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu.

In Estonia, the referendum has traditionally been used as a last resort, needs-based tool for matters of utmost national importance. Only two referenda have been held since Estonia re-gained its independence: the first in 1992 on adopting the current Estonian Constitution, and the other in 2003 on whether to join the European Union.

To grasp the underlining current under the upcoming referendum, we need to understand what led up to it. While the Registered Partnerships Act of 2014 is often referred to as the starting point for the referendum, its wording actually refers to the Estonian Family Act of 2010, which states that “a marriage is a contract between a man and a woman” that is void if “created between persons of the same sex”.

This legislation followed initiatives in 2008 by former Justice Minister Rein Lang to more adequately address the legal rights of married partners with a position paper by the Ministry of Justice the following year.

Upon the passing of the Family Law Act, then-Prime Minister Andrus Ansip declared that “the legal definition of marriage has now been determined”.

If marriage in Estonia is legally defined in the most conservative sense as a union between a man and a woman, why then the need for a referendum on the matter ten years later?

During parliamentary debates over the Registered Partnerships Act in 2020, a civil union bill still to be fully adopted by the Estonian Parliament, the Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition (SAPTK) and far-right Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), fearing that the law on the registration of same-sex partnerships could pave the way for same-sex marriage legalization in the future, seized the opportunity to impose their narrative on the proposed legislation.

What was intended as an alternative method of legally registering hetero- and homosexual partnerships alike was swiftly and effectively portrayed as a “gay bill”, with the coalition’s inability to effectively communicate the bill’s intent playing a major role in planting the seeds for the current debate.

Since the civil union debate erupted in 2013, SAPTK has been the most vocal NGO in support of what they see as Christian values. SAPTK, which has become a leading voice in the “Yes”-campaign of the forthcoming referendum, acts as the local subsidiary of the Polish conservative Christian think tank Ordo Luris.

While SAPTK claims that all its funding from local donations, the sources themselves remain undisclosed, while its leadership has acknowledged receiving funds from Poland in the early stages of the group’s formation. In a major exposé by one of Estonia’s leading daily newspapers, financing links were shown to stem from Brazil, with France and Poland acting as European “hubs” for the Western and Eastern European spheres respectively.

EKRE was formed in 2012, but only rose to prominence in 2014, driven by its promises to protect the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman, as well as its anti-immigration catchphrase of “Our quota is 0”, which references the European migration crisis.

While the group’s focus on asylum seekers has somewhat abated, switching their opposition instead to Ukrainian low-skilled workers and third world university students, the party’s insistence on the forthcoming marriage referendum has intensified, with party leader Martin Helme proclaiming it EKRE’s key electoral promise in the current coalition agreement.

Initially, EKRE wanted to have a referendum on modifying the Constitution to include a definition of marriage during local council elections in autumn 2021, but agreed to drop its pursuit due to legal challenges in its implementation.

Comments by its Interior Minister and former party leader Mart Helme in Deutsche Welle that “the gays should run to Sweden” were the final nails in the coffin, with EKRE being forced to admit changes to the Constitution are no longer optional. For them, this debate is not about human rights, but about the democratic majority getting its way, which in turn serves their larger populist ambitions.

The referendum is planned for 18 April, though the date could still change. Should it pass, any future Estonian government would then need to hold and win another referendum before any changes could be made to the legal definition of marriage laid out in the Family Act, whereas changes can currently be made through regular parliamentary procedure.

While under the current Estonian government, fundamental human rights and European values have become a sort of no man’s land in the daily battles of the political parties, many Estonians are hopeful that soon our country will return to its former course of striving to emulate the Nordic states.

The article is syndicated by Network

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Gaspar Shabad
Academy of Liberalism
Liberal Voices Syndicated