The Constitutional role of the Riigikogu

According to the constitution of the Republic of Estonia, supreme power belongs to the people, who exercise it via the legislative body, the Riigikogu. All important state-related questions pass through the Riigikogu; in addition to approving legislation, the Riigikogu appoints high officials, including the Prime Minister and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and elects (either singly or, if necessary, together with representatives of local government within a broader electoral college) the President. The Riigikogu also ratifies significant foreign agreements that impose military and proprietary obligations, bring about changes in law, etc.; approves the budget presented by the government as law and monitors the executive power.

People can directly participate in state governance and express their political will in the Riigikogu elections, held every 4 years. Outside the Riigikogu electoral procedure, it is difficult for the people to have any impact on state-related decision-making. Whilst it is possible to hold a referendum in Estonia, the decision as to whether to do so rests solely with the Riigikogu. People can of course gather signatures in order to raise a problem for discussion, something which has been done. However, it is again the Riigikogu which decides whether these signatures will have any effect at the state level or not. The limited scope for referendums and public initiative is explained by a wish to avoid populist decisions. On the other hand, most Riigikogu plenary meetings are open to the public, thus offering electors a chance to follow the work of the Riigikogu.

The role of the Riigikogu has not been the same throughout the history of the Republic of Estonia. The first constitution of 1920 strongly emphasised the importance of people’s representation in managing the state. Although the Riigikogu possessed extensive authority during the 1920s, its activity was greatly hindered by the fragmentation of political forces. The ensuing political instability and decline of the Riigikogu’s popularity can be viewed as a major explanatory factors behind the March 1934 coup, when acting state elder Konstantin Päts, fearing a victory by right-wing extremists, suspended the Riigikogu and effectively cancelled forthcoming presidential elections. During the ensuing ‘era of silence’, parliament ceased to function for several years. It was only in 1938 that a new 2-chamber Riigikogu — elected according to the new constitution that came into force during that year — again resumed regular legislative activity. According to the new constitution, however, the institution of the President had both legislative and executive power. The government was appointed by the President, who also had the right to dissolve the Parliament at any given time.

The constitution of the newly independent Estonia does not strictly follow either the parliamentarian or presidential model of state power. On the one hand, there is no strong presidential power in Estonia. On the other hand, the Riigikogu no longer enjoys the kind of control over other branches of government that it had in the 1920s. According to the 1992 constitution, the responsibilities of the Riigikogu are quite extensive, but its power is divided and balanced with other constitutional bodies.

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