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« Tuna 4 / 2016

The Road to the First Referendum

The first referendum in Estonia was held in 1923 on the question of teaching religion in primary schools. It is also noteworthy because it was the first referendum on values initiated by the people in Europe after the Great War. Ideological opposition between conservative and radical leftist values was at the centre of the referendum. Thus the question was not only whether religion could be taught as an optional subject in Estonian primary schools. The result was also an indicator of whether Marxism and left-wing radicalism had started losing their post-World War positions in the world view of the majority of citizens.

Estonia’s parliament had decided that religious instruction could not be a part of the primary school curriculum, not even as an optional subject. According to the initiative of the Christian People’s Party, for which the signatures of citizens were collected, the question that was to be put to the referendum was whether religious instruction is voluntary for pupils and teachers. According to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia passed in 1920, a referendum could be called if 25 000 citizens demanded it, and if the decision of the majority of parliament differed from the decision passed by the referendum, parliament had to be dissolved.

This article examines the political process in parliament that led to the referendum, focusing on the question of what the breaking points of the issue were and whether it would have been possible to block the demand for the referendum that had been signed by 89 000 citizens: namely, the Marxist parties tried to avoid the referendum, using all manner of formal justifications to this end. The parliamentary proceedings concerning the demand made by way of civic initiative demonstrated the entire arsenal of legal tactics that the Riigikogu (Estonian parliament) could use to obstruct the passing of draft legislation that was not according to its liking.

The centre-left Labour Party proved to be the deciding faction in putting the question to a referendum. Thus the entire process still proceeded relatively smoothly to its final result – especially considering the parliament’s lack of experience in this aspect.

The question put to the people received 328 369 votes in favour and 130 476 against in the referendum. An election was declared to elect a new Riigikogu. It is difficult to imagine what the ensuing political developments would have been if the Riigikogu had blocked the referendum, but they could have turned out to be very negative.