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Churches in the Estonian 2019 Parliamentary Elections

Parliamentary elections were held in Estonia on 3 March 2019. More than ever before, churches and religious organisations publicly presented their views and, although openly no church favoured a political party, churches wanted to have an influence in promoting parties with views similar to their own.
Estonian society, similarly to many European societies, is going through a period of antagonism, with a rising right-wing Estonian Conservative People’s Party (CPP) that is opposing to Estonian mainstream politics, and claims to offer a conservative and nationalistic alternative. CPP describes the current political mainstream as a globalising and left-wing liberal policy. In its rhetoric, the conservative party has become very loud, and it turned the campaign for parliament into a confrontation based on the so-called traditional values. The CPP loudly supports the abolition of the law recognizing same-sex unions, reducing money given for abortions, and defining the marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In its rhetoric, the CPP is against the European Union.

Although a few pastors stood for parliament (most of them belonged either to the CPP or to a more moderate conservative party Pro Patria), Christian religious communities in general, which form up to 95% of Estonia’s religious landscape, presented their views in a public letter, signed in September 2018 by the Estonian Council of Churches (ECC). The letter was sent to political parties represented in the parliament, and reflected the Council’s view on the subjects considered the most important before the upcoming parliamentary elections in March 2019. The Council has an agreement contract with the Government of Estonia, signed in 2002, and another contract with the ministry of Justice was signed just a month before the elections and is the major partner of the state in religious affairs.

The council paper held 9 propositions (in Estonian):
1. In legal practice, the freedom of conscience and religion should be implemented in all possible cases and in a balanced context of other freedoms (lately the balance in Council’s opinion has not been adopted – for example in the case of law on the equal treatment, which has not yet been implemented but has been negotiated).
2. The state must value marriage and family as the basis of the society. The council supports the proposition to change the constitution in order to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Estonian Health Insurance Fund should finance pregnancy crisis counselling in favour of financing abortions. The council also thinks that family strengthening programmes should be better financed, and that shelters for women and young mothers should be financially supported.
3. Religious education at schools, which is a voluntary subject, should be more easily available. This requires an analysis of what measures should be implemented to increase the number of public schools teaching religion.
4. The state should value more the participation of religious organisations in local communities. As the churches have a network covering the country, the measures of social services and youth and cultural work need the support of the state, because sometimes the help given by the local government is not enough.
5. In legal practice, the exceptional position of religious organisations should be taken into account.
6. The council supports the continuation of the project to renovate sacred buildings, because they are a part of Estonian cultural heritage. The project ended in 2018, and in the future the renovation of sacred places is not separately financed.
7. To implement a ‘rule of a percentage’, so that a person could according to their wish give 1% of their income to an NGO of their choice. The donation could be divided between three organisations maximum. The donations received by pensioners and people with low income should be reimbursed by the Estonian tax and Customs Board. (It has to be noted that, already in 1919, the Republic of Estonia implemented a law according to which it was the business of religious organisations to collect the tax from their members. The same policy was implemented after Estonia regained its independence in 1991.)
8. The council supports the creation of a hospital chaplaincy in each hospital. Currently there are only a few chaplains working in larger hospitals. The council also supports the idea to create a chaplaincy for schools and asks the state to help to work out the necessary measures.
9. The value tax paid for the renovation of sacred buildings should be returned to churches. This would motivate religious organisations to invest in renovating their buildings.

The proposals soon had a follow-up when in February 2019 Urmas Viilma, the archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the leader of the largest church among Estonians, published a “Compass for Christians” (see Delfi and Meie Kirik), where he had analysed the programmes of political parties and put them in the context of the propositions made by the ECC.
He gave 0 to 3 points to each proposal made by the ECC, which he found in the party programmes. He gave 0 to parties who did not favour the proposal or held a view opposite to it. One to two points were given when parties had similar proposals or supported the proposals to an extent that the implementation of the proposal was realistic in the coming future, and 3 when there was a total overlap of the ECC proposal and party program. The results turned out to be in favour of the ruling Centre party with 32 points, Pro Patria with 28 points, social Democrats with 19 points, Free Party with 15 points, CPP with 14 points and a new political party, Estonia 200, with 6 points.
While most of the political parties did not comment on Viilma’s compass, Estonia 200 and CPP claimed that the archbishop was just complying with the ruling parties, who had financially supported the church by ending a discussion over a church in central Tallinn with a compensation. (See Delfi, in Estonian.) As a result, an ultraconservative webpage Objektiiv, which has been since its launch in 2015 until November 2018 led by the Lutheran pastor Veiko Vihuri, questioned the archbishop’s decision to rate Christian values as important as, for example, the renovation of church buildings. The webpage called the compass, “depressingly primitive and obedient”. In response, the editors of Objektiiv, which represents the views of the most conservative Christians, created their own compass, claiming that the CPP represented best the views of Christians. The compass was sent by post mail to most of the Estonians.
The elections turned out in favour of liberal parties – the Reform Party got 33,7% and the Centre Party 25,7% of the votes. However, the two liberal parties were not willing to unite, because the current Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party) wanted to remain Prime Minister and, therefore, was willing to form a coalition with the moderate pro-Patria (11,9% of the votes) and the CPP (18,8%). The social democrats got 9,9% of the votes. This caused a storm in Estonian society, which continued for months after the elections.
Urmas Viilma compared the coalition agreement with the propositions of the ECC, and published a “Christian coalition agreement”, eventually claiming that the coalition agreement between Centre Party, pro-Patria and the CPP had mentioned 2/3 of the ECC propositions as something they would like to tackle over the coming years.

D 25 June 2019    APriit Rohtmets

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