Postponing local elections can be avoided

Toomas Kask
, Saatejuht
Elections. Photo: Erik Prozes

Opposition leader the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and the ruling Reform Party are against postponing local government council elections because of the pandemic, while Reform’s coalition partner the Center Party is willing to consider it. Estonia’s justice chancellor finds that the Constitution does not provide for postponing elections due to pandemics.

Finland has decided to postpone local elections that were set to take place on April 18 until June 13. The unprecedented decision was made just a few days before parties had to present their candidate lists. The Finnish government finds that holding elections in April would be irresponsible and risky due to the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and modest vaccination coverage.

Finnish journalist Sami Lotila said that no major debate over whether postponing the elections was constitutional developed in the country. He said that only the True Finns voiced protest as they are currently enjoying a high rating. “The decision did not benefit them as they are unsure of their rating come summer. However, most Finns understand it was a necessary decision,” Lotila said.

Ballot boxes must be open

Estonia has a certain advantage over Finland in that its citizens can vote electronically, with parties increasingly keen on the possibility. Finland does not have e-voting, remains skeptical and has avoided developing such a system. At the same time, traditional voting cannot simply be canceled in Estonia as that would be unlawful. People need to be given the chance to lower their vote into a ballot box at a voting station.

Center Party leader, President of the Riigikogu Jüri Ratas said on the “Otse Postimehest” webcast that Estonia is prepared to postpone elections if necessary. “Provided the pandemic will not let up, we are willing to consider postponing elections; however, I believe that the situation will be under control by fall and elections can go ahead on schedule,” he said. Ratas added that e-voting is playing an increasingly important role.

The Reform Party believes that postponing elections can only be considered in extreme cases and remains against it. The party’s hopes lie with electronic voting and vaccination. “We have the e-voting system that gives everyone in Estonia the chance to vote in complete safety and contact-free,” the party’s secretary general Erki Keldo said. He said that the party believes over half of people in Estonia will be voting electronically in the future. “We need to extend the e-voting period if necessary. Efforts also need to be made to adopt so-called m-voting or allowing people to cast their vote using smart devices,” Keldo said.

Opposition leader the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) is against postponing elections. Chairman Martin Helme said they will not agree to elections being postponed as a result of the coronavirus. “Democracy cannot be put on hold. It is too soon to predict what the situation will be in October, while other solutions will have to be found should it prove necessary, such as having more voting stations catering to fewer people,” Helme said.

Chairman of the opposition Isamaa party Helir-Valdor Seeder said that the government needs to concentrate on combating the virus today and that it is too soon to talk about elections. “We need to step up the vaccination pace and can hold local elections on schedule if we succeed,” Seeder found. “One advantage Estonia has over Finland and other countries is e-voting. Almost half of people cast their vote electronically during Riigikogu elections in 2019. While traditional voting will surely remain a possibility, the relative importance of e-voting will help reduce contacts between people and minimize the risk of infection,” he added.

The Social Democratic Party (SDE) criticized both the previous and current governments. “Poor decisions and indecisiveness of the governments of Jüri Ratas and Kaja Kallas have caused these problems,” the party’s secretary general Rannar Vassiljev said. “If the Reform Party can make decisions based on knowledge as opposed to ideology and popularity, we will hopefully not have to discuss postponing elections,” Vassiljev hoped, adding that elections should be held on time if at all possible.

Okay in Finland, not in Estonia

Head of the Office of the Chancellor of Justice, member of the National Electoral Committee Olari Koppel said that current legislation provides no grounds for postponing local or other elections due to a pandemic. “The National Electoral Service and local government organizers are obligated to carry out elections lawfully, safely and complying with all relevant measures and restrictions at the time,” he said.

Former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks was less resolute. “Amending section 2 of the Local Government Council Election Act and other relevant provisions could be considered in the case of overwhelming public interest,” he pointed out. Jõks said that it needs to be analyzed whether measures would disrupt campaigning, such as meetings with voters. “This might provide parties that have more resources to buy advertising in electronic media and newspapers with an advantage,” he said. “The debate over whether local elections can go ahead should be had as soon as possible as preparations need to start in the near future,” Jõks offered.