No. 26




Dialogues on Direct Democracy in the Riigikogu: Processing of Legalization of Public Initiative in 2003–2008 *

19 December 2012


RiTo No. 26, 2012

Direct democracy is closely connected to the principle of national sovereignty. The latter emphasizes first of all the people as the bearers and the source of state power: the right to organise the political power and to approve of its structure belongs to the people, and has to arise from the legitimization and will of the people.

The people can exercise the supreme power of state either by electing the parliament or through direct democracy, for which there are referendums and public initiatives. In principle, parliamentary elections and direct democracy (primarily in the form of a referendum) exist in the constitutions side by side: legislative powers are divided between the parliament and the people according to the principle which ensures that the power of the state functions on a limited and balanced basis, enabling control over the activities of the government through direct democracy. The referendum is the right of the people to put a veto on the decisions of the government; the people voting in the referendum constitute a kind of a second or third chamber of the parliament. Direct democracy has an important role as a warrant of legitimacy of political decisions. For example, a study conducted in the European Union has shown that the citizens’ awareness and understanding of the way in which political institutions function is larger if they themselves have the possibility to directly participate in the processes of political decision-making. The studies have shown that many Estonians also believe that enforcing direct democracy is important. The political parties, however, do not share their enthusiasm.

Both forms of direct democracy were known in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia in force before 1940. The Constitution in force at present stipulates a referendum, but not public initiative. Although only one referendum has taken place in Estonia so far (in 2003 in connection with accession to the European Union), the Parliament has continuously made attempts to initiate referendums on different issues. In addition to that, there have been several bills, the purpose of which was to legitimize the public initiative through making amendments to the Constitution, and to create an institution for referendum. During the X and XI Riigikogu a draft act adding an amendment to the Constitution was being processed. Its purpose was to legitimize public initiative. The draft act stipulated that a public initiative can be initiated by at least 25,000 citizen having the right to vote. Alas, this process finished unsuccessfully, and the Act was never passed. The author has conducted a qualitative research – by using discourse analysis methodology, he established the main direct democracy discourses in the parliamentary debates that handled the legitimization of public initiative. The author analyzes the reasons for previous failures of direct democratic initiatives in Estonia as well as makes proposals on possibilities to improve the current situation.

*Peer reviewed research paper.

Full article in Estonian