The merger polls carried out recently in many municipalities due to the administrative reform largely turned out a fiasco, since only a tiny minority took part. Minister of State Administration Mihhail Korb thinks that such polls could have been as well cancelled.
For example, only 0.04 percent of residents of voting age took part in the poll in Türi municipality, Järva county, 0.79 percent in the town of Valga, 0.9 percent in Suure-Jaani municipality in Viljandi county and one percent in Pärnu. The participation record was set in Kõpu municipality, Viljandi county, where as many as 53 percent cast their ballot. There were 50.3 percent of voters in Nõva municipality, Lääne county, but such turnout was exceptional.
A small mishap
According to Minister of State Administration Mihhail Korb, on the average 2-3 percent of residents of voting age took part in the municipal polls.
“The outcome and value of the polls was questionable,” he said. “It remained unclear what to do with these results. It was a clear mistake to carry out these opinion polls in a hope that they could later be fitted with some features of a democratic process.”
Center Party member Korb is free to remain critical towards the administrative reform act, since he was in the opposition during its preparation and the minister was Reform Party member Arto Aas.
“The polls were a minor mishap,” Korb added. “While on the average only two percent of the people voted, there are two options – either they did not care or the information did not reach the people. In some case the notice was quietly published on the municipality’s web page and that was all.”
According to the minister, it is also doubtful what was later done with the results. The outcomes had the power of recommendations and the local councils did what they wanted. “It was often explained by the low turnout,” Korb added.
Korb obviously agreed that nothing can be changed in retrospect. In his opinion the municipal councils did not have good options for a “nay” vote of the polls. The merger agreements were already drafted everywhere and only waited for the signatures. An alternative would have been to discard the result of months of preparations, losing the merger support sums and waiting for the inevitable forced merger.
According to the Ministry of Finance, by yesterday there were data on voting in 153 municipalities – a majority of the voters supported the mergers in 111 municipalities and towns, while in 41 local governments the voters opposed the merger. And the councils of most of such municipalities nevertheless decided to approve the mergers.
In the Vasalemma municipality, Harju county, an opposite process took place – the poll outcomes supported the merger agreement, but the council decided differently.
According to the Ministry of Finance, the negative outcome of the poll served as an argument for the council to reject merger in some localities, This happened in Padise, Harju county; in Saarde and Tõstamaa, Pärnu county and in Lüganuse, East-Viru county.
In Torgu municipality in the southwestern corner of Saaremaa, out of 316 residents of voting age 56 voted with 22 supporting the municipality covering the whole island and 34 opposing the idea.
According to the municipality head Tiit Põld, the Salme and Pihtla municipalities also opposed the merger. “The Torgu municipality was created with a lot of effort and was the last in Saaremaa – if something has been done with great effort, it is close to your heart,” he said. “The older people are used to it and they fear that life will become harder.”
A bitter taste
Yet despite the opposition the council approved the merger. The Torgu municipality was granted an additional article in the merger agreement providing the residents with free transport to ship in the current neighboring municipality center Salme and to Kuressaare.
Põld thus finds that the residents’ living conditions would not deteriorate at least during the first four years after the merger. “On the other hand the path to the parish center has grown over with grass – it was frequently visited during the land reform,” he admits. The Torgu parish no longer has a school or a kindergarten.
In Põld’s opinion the residents of municipalities are rather indifferent towards the merger issues due to the sense that little enough depends on them.
“I clearly remember how the then minister of state administration Arto Aas visited Saaremaa and our council chairman asked what to do if the people should oppose the merger,” he recalled. “The minister clearly said that you need not do what the poll shows – you should act the way you believe is right. This information spread and reached everybody – whatever the people may think, the council has no obligation to vote according to it.”
Therefore the opinion polls, which failed nationwide, leave a rather bitter taste to the administrative reform, Sild says – only a few voted and their opinion is disregarded.
Population geographer Garri Raagmaa said that the polls mostly just did not touch the people. Exceptional were the municipalities, where some sort of intrigue was going on, for example an attempt to split up the municipality or a fiery debate on with whom to merge. “But the law stipulates that the public opinion does not matter, because the council decided the way it wants,” he said.
Siim Avi, head of the Kõpu municipality with the unusually high turnout, said that their emotions were heated up by the option to choose between Viljandi and Suure-Jaani – the council was ready to sign the merger agreement with the latter. Although majority of the voters opposed the merger, the council approved it nevertheless.
In Avi’s opinion the polls amount to playing democracy. “If the law has allowed longer deadlines for approving the merger agreements, the polls would have had a greater effect, but now January 1 is nearing and there is nothing left to do for the council but to decide,” he added. “The deadlines leave no alternatives – just forced moves.”
Pipi-Liis Siemann, head of Türi municipality with the lowest turnout, is skeptical about the polls. A total of 8,000 people had the right to vote and the supporters of merger won with 27 votes.
“I do not consider that sort of opinion poll very reasonable,” she said. “We held two meetings before the poll, both had less than ten participants.”
According to Siemann, the local government made an effort to inform the people, but they lacked any interest. ““Yes” or “no” is not very informative,” she said. “The voter has already granted the mandate to the council member to decide the problems concerning the management and development of the municipality. Merger is one of such problems.”
Siemann said that all local governments have done a lot of work on the merger agreements and that work would be wasted if the agreement were rejected due to the emotions of a minority of the residents. “And there are no better alternatives,” she added.
Ex-minister finds it necessary
Former minister of state administration Arto Aas considers the polls on the merger agreements nevertheless necessary. “It was necessary to ask for the public opinion so as to bring along some sort of discussion,” the present parliament member said. “At least the people have an opportunity to ask, to discuss, to make their position heard. Then the final decision would be made by the councils.”
Aas also admitted that the turnout on the polls had not been high. “People either do not care much or they accept any decision,” he said.
The former minister added that the polls had been made necessary by the European charter of local governments. “It is also the idea of our constitution that the opinion of the people must be asked, but the councils make the final decision,” he said.