Unlike his predecessor Allar Jõks the current Chancellor of Justice Indrek Teder cannot be expected to stand, in principle, against Riigikogu members taking a seat at local councils.
Sitting on two chairs, again
Back in 2005, Mr Jõks found parliamentarians belonging to local councils as unconstitutional, violating separation of powers. Also, he didn’t think Riigikogu members should have a second state office. The ban to merge offices, dating from 2002, stood its ground in Supreme Court.
No to «vote magnetism»
The current chancellor Indrek Teder revealed his stand after inquiry by Arto Aas (Reform Party) in October of 2013.
According to Mr Teder, the option isn’t regulated by the constitution. «In principle, both solutions are possible.»
Mr Teder went on to reason that a seat at local council shouldn’t be considered s state office. He said that in case conflicts of interest occur, this can be dealt with by other measures than a ban.
Here Mr Teder referred to rules regarding withdrawing oneself and the obligation to inform. He said it is up to the politicians to see that in Riigikogu they act in the interests of the whole state, not favouring some local governmental thing.
In power agreement of the Reform/Soc Dems «spring-coalition», it reads that the merger-ban has to go. As a mitigating measure, it says Riigikogu members should not get benefits for working in councils. And that according to good practice, Riigikogu people ought not to be elected chairmen or vice chairmen of said councils.
According to justice minister Andres Anvelt (soc dems), a corresponding bill is already being prepared. He said this is part of the coalition’s so-called democracy package.
«The changes are, first and foremost, intended to strengthen the basic foundations of democracy,» said he. As the merger-ban goes, «Riigikogu members will thus be also able to have a say in local level issues and have an impact in local community development».
Mr Anvelt was not able to specify when the planned change would take effect, but it would sent for coordination as soon as possible.
According to soc dems chief Sven Mikser, the shift would be a means to solve the infamous «vote magnetism» problem.
«It was once banned for Riigikogu members to sit at councils, with one especially in mind – Tallinn,» said he. «I believe for many smaller local governments the ban hasn’t been a blessing.»
Pursuant to law as it stands, a Riigikogu member may not, while in office, belong to city or commune councils. This will not mean they cannot run: in case a Riigikogu member is elected into a local council, his powers there will simply be suspended. However, such parliamentarians may later leave the Riigikogu (being, for instance, alternate member for a minister, and the minister returns to Riigikogu) and start working in the local council.
In practice, a Riigikogu member may still act as vote magnet at local elections – amassing votes but when elected just waive the council mandate.
A telling example of the effect of the current law is the veteran IRL politician Mart Nutt. Last fall, Mr Nutt run for Tallinn council, got over 1,300 votes and was thus elected.
Being also Riigikogu member, Mr Nutt had to make a choice: shall I participate in politics of the capital or of the republic? In the fall, he remained in Riigikogu. Come spring, Reform Party pushed IRL into opposition. Therefore, defence minister Urmas Reinsalu returned to parliament and Mr Nutt, as his alternate member, had to leave Riigikogu.
By now, Mr Nutt has already restored his powers at the Tallinn city council, his alternate member there (Andres Luus) has left.
In 2005, Mr Nutt addressed the Riigikogu with a critical statement regarding merger of the offices: «For six years, I personally have been, at the same time, a member of Tallinn council, and of Riigikogu. And, based on my experience, I must say it can be done [in such combined manner] but it’s extremely difficult.»
Also, Mr Nutt then noted that in Estonia, local governments are quite independent as compared to some other countries. «Therefore, it is not healthy that one body directly affects the activities of another body.»
Now, Mr Nutt is not so sure anymore and says there are the pros and cons. «Both [variants] can work,» he said yesterday. «In Finland, for instance, it is considered self-evident that parliament members work in local councils – even necessary.»
Ball in Presidential court
In 2005, government and Riigikogu majority were of the opinion that parliamentarians must be allowed into councils. However, then Councillor of Justice Allar Jõks and President Arnold Rüütel were against.
In the end, Mr Rüütel took the issue into Supreme Court and won. The highest court declared the law contested by Mr Rüütel as contradictory to constitution, but for another reason: the vital amendment was attempted just before local elections.
«Based on principles of democracy, it cannot be accepted that the political forces in power impose substantial changes to election rules known for years, immediately before elections, to their own benefit,» said the Supreme Court in its decision.
Whether the ban on Riigikogu/council job merger itself is unconstitutional or not, the Supreme Court decision did not essentially cover.
Should Riigikogu now again allow its members sit at local councils, the ball rolls to the court of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves – to proclaim the amendment, or not to proclaim the amendment as President Rüütel opted to do in 2005.