Charter 12: Estonia's stab at direct democracy

After Iceland, Estonia is the second European country to engage in a radically novel democratic experiment. Against growing contempt for corrupt and out of touch political elites, Estonian civil society is betting on crowdsourced constitutional reform.

Charter 12 is an Estonian citizens' initiative, signed by seventeen prominent public figures (mostly academics and thinkers), calling for greater democratic accountability on the part of the authorities.

Its demands include a radical overhaul of Estonia's electoral legislation as well as laws regulating the conduct of political parties in order to reverse what the original signatories feel is a dangerous  erosion of democratic feedback mechanisms in Estonia. Charter 12 was conceived as a response to rapidly rising levels of public anger after a series of scandals involving senior politicians unwilling to take responsibility for grave lapses of judgement - and unable to adhere to accepted canons of democratic communication.

Quickly attracting thousands of further online signatures, Charter 12 has by now set in motion a consultative process which could shortly see the country adopt at least two important pieces of crowdsourced legislation. There could be more to come if the procedure is successful. The drive will be overseen by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves personally, stung into action hours after Charter 12 was published on 14 November 2012.

Although responding to a pattern of events all too familiar for Central and Eastern European countries, Estonia - due to its size and technocratic prowess, especially in the area of IT development and e-governance - could become an important landmark for second-generation democratic reforms in the region. 

A certain sense of disenchantment is on the rise in a number of CEE countries which, while ostensibly free, have failed to deliver to their citizens standards of democratic feedback on a par with western European and US models. Experimentation with direct democracy and crowdsourcing has currently been confined to relatively stable and affluent Nordic environments (above all Iceland).

Although poor, Estonia is not as dragged down by the encumbrances of transition experienced by most other countries in the region, having begun with a virtually clean political slate in 1992. Its population has proved its tolerance of change during periods of hardship - for example, Estonia adopted the euro in 2011 at the height of an economic downturn and a massive internal devaluation drive.

Given the requisite political will on the part of the authorities in Estonia, something truly revolutionary could emerge from the experiment in crowdsourcing now under way. Most of the initial signs are encouraging: the president is now willing to back up Charter 12 with all the weight of his personal authority. The president could be further ‘incentivised’ by his ambition to make a name for himself as a global patron and pioneer of new technologies (a few weeks ago Ilves was appointed chairman of the steering board of the European Cloud Partnership by the European Commission). The dominant political parties, although likely to resist changes which could in effect marginalise them in the long run, are uniquely vulnerable right now - having been put on the defensive after the public backlash against the way they conducted themselves.

The backdrop

The Charter's immediate backdrop was the unwillingness of the Estonian government to address - or even acknowledge responsibility - for a financing scandal in which the larger of the two coalition partners (the Reform Party) had become embroiled in May 2012. Silver Meikar, a former Reform Party MP, publicly admitted he had helped siphon cash off from unknown donors into party coffers via his personal bank account - further alleging that others had done the same.

An inquiry was launched by the public prosecutor's office. Estonia's minister of justice, who was party chairman at the time of these events, was himself interrogated by the authorities as a suspect, but flatly rejected the allegations. The prosecutor eventually dropped the case for lack of evidence, but made public the explanations various Reform Party members had given regarding where the cash they had deposited in their own accounts shortly before transferring the money to the party - often in excess of €10,000 - came from. 

The explanations, whilst legally beyond reproach, contained gems such as "I borrowed the money from my mother-in-law" and "I donated my family's savings." Despite its usual stoicism, Estonian public opinion quickly became incensed. The Reform Party's response was to expel Mr Meikar - but the minister of justice is still in office. None of the remaining three parties in the Estonian parliament (the Riigikogu) showed any eagerness to make the issue their own, suggesting that they had all benefited from similar financing arrangements. 

To add insult to public injury, senior Reform Party politicians have continued making light of the situation. Various individuals have gone on record resorting to blatantly inappropriate language. Thus the finance minister dismissed the mild reproach of a junior female party colleague in openly sexist terms. The prime minister's long overdue apology for the financing irregularities was vague and short. Needless to say, no one has resigned.

Measured debate

The Charter 12 manifesto was published on November 14 in the two major Estonian daily newspapers and attracted more than 17,000 online signatures in the days that followed. The charter's potential momentum was quickly recognised by President Ilves, who within hours after its publication issued a call for a "measured" society-wide debate on the future of Estonian democracy. The next day, Ilves invited the original authors of Charter 12, along with representatives of the four parties in the Riigikogu, handpicked civil society organisations and a small number of constitutional scholars to a round-table meeting.

The meeting took place on November 21 and was live-streamed on the internet (a key Charter 12 demand) and broadcast on Estonia's public television. After nearly two hours of deliberation, the meeting resolved, with the overt backing of the president and the somewhat less overt agreement of the four major parties, to crowdsource proposals to amend the current legislation in two areas: the creation and conduct of political parties and electoral law. Drawing on the Charter, the president identified as key objectives: opening the party system to greater competition; reducing and/or abolishing the various measures currently hamstringing new parties and non-party candidates in elections; as well as making the different parties more equal with regard to public political financing. The president and the authors of Charter 12 also agreed that action must be taken to make the parties' sources of non-state financing transparent; to oblige political parties to follow democratic rules in intra-party decision-making; and to remove the parties' influence over civil service staffing decisions.

The procedure and timetable for the crowdsourcing exercise were largely spelled out at the November 21 roundtable meeting. Estonian citizens will be able to submit amendment proposals via the internet (and by ordinary mail) until January 31, 2013. The material will then be assessed by a body of seven or eight independent experts, specially convened for this purpose, who will draw up the first drafts of the amendment bills. The bills will in turn be debated by randomly selected groups representative of Estonia's demographic makeup, then given another going-over by the experts, to be finally presented to the Riigikogu by the president himself - no later than March 31, 2013. On  November 21, the president repeatedly expressed his wish that the Estonian parliament would have the amended legislation in place ahead of its summer recess - effectively by the end of June 2013. Given Estonia's very high levels of Internet penetration and freedom, crowdsourcing via the web seems to be a particularly promising solution.

Hanging loose, and why you can’t trust politicians

The plan, as it stands, is far from foolproof. The power invested in the Estonian presidency is largely symbolic. The president cannot directly initiate legislation and would need to appeal to the Riigikogu to do so on his behalf. Most of Estonia's mainstream media - whilst sympathetic to the Charter's diagnosis of a crisis of democratic legitimacy - remains sceptical as to the sincerity and extent of the commitment of either the president or the establishment parties to these reforms.

There are fears the parties could attempt to hijack the process before it reaches the Riigikogu, pointing to the various (although far more limited) amendments already in the legislative works. However, the momentum is currently resolutely against the parties. The initiators of Charter 12 have no plans to formalise their collaboration, but intend to remain loosely operational and provide oversight - and directly intervene in the process, if necessary.

Historically, the omens are not particularly good. Eleven years ago, a few dozen prominent Estonian academics signed a forerunner manifesto pointing to a growing chasm between the elites and the rest of the country.

That, at the time, created an opening for a new party, called ResPublica, broadly populist in inclination, which went on to win the next elections in 2003. ResPublica imploded a few years later, but not before putting into place rules making sure their quick rise could not easily be repeated - making it very difficult to establish new parties, virtually preventing independent candidates from getting elected, increasing and securing public payments almost exclusively for the largest parties in parliament.

These are the very same rules that are now to blame for the democratic impasse highlighted by Charter 12. However, there is a key difference: ResPublica was mobilised by a handful of political also-rans of the 1990s on a right-wing, pro-order platform, while Charter 12 appears to have captured the imagination of a much broader swathe of Estonian society - that of the young and middle aged professionals, many with direct experience of life (and democracy!) in the west.

In contrast, the Estonian established political class largely consists  of individuals whose formative years have known little else but the greasy pole of domestic politics. Crucially, Charter 12 has quickly forged links with Estonia's younger generation, the under-30s behind a series of street manifestations this year - another novel feature in Estonia's hitherto rather staid political scene.

About the author

Ahto Lobjakas is one of the initiators of Charter 12 and an op-ed columnist for Postimees, Estonia's largest daily newspaper. He spent ten years as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Brussels correspondent, after having studied politics and philosophy in Sweden and the UK.

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