With no conservative party in the government coalition for the first time in decades, the Estonian progressives have turned toward legalizing gay marriage only weeks after the election. But even if the political means are there, the issue remains controversial in the country.
Although gay and lesbian couples enjoy certain limited rights in the Baltic country under the Registered Partnership Act of 2014, marriage between homosexual partners is still illegal. The reason, however, is not the absence of a political will or LGBT lobby in Tallinn, but something much simpler: governance by a conservative party, in place there since Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union more than thirty years ago.
This tradition appears to be ending, and the three soon-to-be coalition partners are already discussing gay marriage just weeks after the general election on March 5th. The election went down more-or-less as expected, with incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’ liberal Reform Party finishing first at 31.2% and even strengthening its leading position in Parliament. The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) came in second at 16.1% followed by the moderate-left Estonian Center Party with 15.3%.
The novelty of the situation is that Kallas’ Reform has apparently ditched one of its former coalition partners, the center-right Pro Patria party, replacing it with the progressive Estonia 200 (E200). Even though the party was founded only in 2018, E200 not only got into parliament but did so in fourth place (at 13.3%)—finishing ahead of the social democrat SDE, which will most likely continue serving as the third wheel of the Estonian government coalition.
Now, with an all-left coalition comprising liberals, socialists, and progressives at the helm, obstacles for carrying out controversial social reforms are no longer there.
While the new government hasn’t officially formed yet, the progressive E200 has already presented its reform plans during coalition meetings with Reform and SDE. One of these ideas is the redefinition of hate speech, particularly in the online sphere, allowing law enforcement to clamp down on cyberbullying and “virtual violence.”
Another sought-after legislation, and one of the central issues of E200’s platform, would be the legalization of same-sex marriage. “Every moment is the right moment to stand up for minority rights,” Liisa Pakosta, one of E200’s new MPs said.
So far, it seems the progressives managed to enlist one of their partners in the cause, namely the SDE. “[Now] all three parties engaged in coalition talks are liberal-progressive and two of them … support both passing the registered partnership implementation acts, but also same-sex marriage,” Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets, chairman of the Estonian Social Democrat Party said.
Indeed, the Reform Party is still on the edge about gay marriage. As the largest of the three and the closest to the political center, it has to tread more carefully on issues that could divide the electorate. The question of same-sex marriage has split the party itself: the more urbanite members, including PM Kallas, are more comfortable moving forward with E200’s proposals, while the MPs who represent more rural areas would rather stay clear of this ideological hornet’s nest.
The sensitivity of the issue is acknowledged by the progressives too. “The likelihood of the subject being included in the final coalition platform is uncertain at the moment,” Pakosta said. “The Eesti 200 party is committed to achieving marriage equality in the coalition platform. However, if the opposition is too strong from its partners, the party will explore all possibilities of realizing its ambitious and innovative program as a whole.”
For now, Kallas’ Reform party would only commit to adopting a new framework to enforce the implementation of the civil partnerships act, which has been stuck in a legislative deadlock ever since. The party’s position can change in time, of course, as same-sex marriage is on the negotiation agenda for next week’s coalition meeting.
“Experience in other countries has shown that following the adoption of same-sex marriage legislation, the public support for it will start to grow rather quickly,” Läänemets said. “Should Kaja Kallas be able to persuade her party to also support a perhaps more ambitious agenda for same-sex marriage rights, that could be a landmark decision not only for Estonia—but for the wider region.”