The electoral system and membership of the Riigikogu

All 18-year-old Estonian citizens with active legal capacity are entitled to participate in the Riigikogu elections. The requirements for standing as a candidate for the Riigikogu are stricter — a member must be at least 21 years old and know the Estonian language. Although the share of non-citizens in the population of today’s Estonia is fairly large, they cannot elect or be elected to the Riigikogu. Through the Estonian language requirement, the Riigikogu tries to guarantee the smooth functioning of the work of peoples’ representatives, and at the same time boost Estonian language and culture.

Riigikogu members are elected under a proportional representation list system for 4 years. This electoral system has caused many a debate in Estonian society. The elector gives his/her vote to a specific candidate, but whether the latter is elected or not depends on the total number of votes given to the relevant party nation-wide, and on the candidate’s place on the party’s election list. It may thus transpire that a candidate receiving very few votes is elected, if his/her party happens to get comparatively more votes, and he/she is high up on the party’s list. This means that the mandate of a Riigikogu member is not tied to a particular area, and there is no personal connection between the electorate and those elected.

In addition, a 5 per cent threshold of votes is applied in Riigikogu elections, i.e. only parties receiving 5 per cent of the total votes cast in the country have a chance of securing representation in the Riigikogu. This too has caused disappointment among the electorate, because voting for small parties inevitably results in a ‘loss’ of votes. The introduction of an electoral threshold in Estonia follows the example of many countries, and is at least partly justified by historical experience. Easy access to the parliament fragmented the political scene already in the 1920s, making it impossible to form a truly efficient parliament. The threshold thus allows only larger parties into the Riigikogu who are in a better position to form a strong coalition.

Riigikogu members come from different walks of life. There is, for instance, no overwhelming majority of lawyers in parliament, as is the case elsewhere in the world. The number of economists is actually bigger, although even their share is by no means remarkable. In fact, the situation is quite the reverse — there is much discontent about the insufficient number of lawyers and economists in the Riigikogu. The different background of the members means that the representation of the people is more extensive. Having a wide variety of professions has its advantages, as well as drawbacks. On the one hand, the widely representative Riigikogu commands an excellent overview of what happens in different fields of life. On the other hand, the process of shaping and working out decisions may take more time than it would if the Riigikogu consisted largely of professional politicians, economists and lawyers.

The proportion of women cannot be compared to that of men in Riigikogu; and the Riigikogu itself cannot in this respect be compared to the progressive Nordic countries. In 2001, however, 18 of the 101 members were women. Despite belonging to different parties, they have assembled in the Women’s Association, and occasionally present their joint declaration in questions concerning women.

Riigikogu members cannot be recalled; they speak for the entire nation, i.e. they can make decisions based on their own principles. It is possible to dismiss a member of parliament only in extremely limited cases, which are primarily connected with committing a crime. Such measures attempt to secure the sovereignty of people’s representatives and their activity in the interest of all people, and not relying on the prevailing mood of a certain part of the electorate.

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