No. 46




Formulating the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure in Estonia 1990–1992

14 December 2022


RiTo No. 46, 2022

How did parliamentary procedural rules develop over the two years after the first free post-war elections in Estonia in March 1990?

Right behind the restoration of national independence, the second priority of the elected Supreme Council was to make the shift towards democracy. The earlier procedural rules were unsuitable for a democratic parliament and needed replacing. The final outcome of the shift would also depend greatly on how successful the parliament would be in getting its work up and running. Some of the former socialist countries never made it to the free world at all.

During the first weeks, the Supreme Council’s work went anything but smoothly. At times it took several hours of valuable working time to adopt the week’s agenda alone. Parliamentarians were highly motivated to overcome the obstacles, and the first steps to eliminate gross flaws in the procedural rules were made in a relatively unanimous atmosphere.

By the second half of 1990, the legislators had collected a sizeable library and a great number of examples of procedural rules in developed democratic countries. A permanent working group was set up for improving procedural rules, and frequent amendments were indeed introduced during the first and the second year.

An important rule that was established relatively quickly concerned the impartial role of the Speaker. The descriptions of the procedure for submitting and debating items on the agenda were soon elaborated in great detail. One of the crucial new rules said that the plenary would not debate an issue before the lead committee had completed thorough preparation work. Even issues like defining the working time or forming committees required a massive reorganisation of the work of the Supreme Council during its first months.

A typical example of a procedural rule that was incompatible with democracy was the unnaturally high quorum requirement. Another example was the requirement for an unreasonably high majority during a vote. When a choice needs to be made between the available alternatives, the simple majority is the only way to get anywhere at all, which is why the rules on voting were amended unanimously. However, the Supreme Council failed to apply the simple majority rule to itself in passing legislative acts because of the numerous opposition.

It was difficult to update the role of the Presidium of the Supreme Council, which was very much of the previous era. The Presidium was a body for discussing political questions and this it remained – out of its depth in organising the work of the Supreme Council. In April 1991, the Supreme Council received a Board in addition to the Presidium, with the sole task of organising the work of the Council. Indeed, the Board did a more efficient job of it than the Presidium had.

The topic of procedural rules is occasionally still raised in the Riigikogu today, three decades later. Formulating the rules in the Supreme Council was thorough and painful but it did ensure the Riigikogu a much smoother sailing in this respect.