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Estonia, Government

Riigikogu, direct popular vote, legal successor, administrative courts, Peace program

The present republic of Estonia is a legal successor to the independent republic of the same name that existed from 1918 to 1940. Following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, a new constitution was approved by referendum in 1992.

The legislative branch consists of a unicameral (single-chamber) national legislative body, the Riigikogu. The 101 members of the Riigikogu are elected by direct popular vote for four-year terms. The Riigikogu elects from its members a chairperson, or speaker, who with two deputies directs the work of the legislature.

The head of state is the president, who is granted very limited executive authority. The president is elected for a term of five years by secret ballot of the Riigikogu. If no presidential candidate wins the votes of two-thirds of the legislature in any of three rounds of voting, the speaker must convene an electoral college to elect a president by simple majority. The president nominates the prime minister, subject to approval by the Riigikogu. The prime minister, who heads the executive branch, selects a cabinet of ministers to carry out the day-to-day operations of government.

All citizens aged 18 and older may vote. Political parties must receive at least 5 percent of the total votes cast to gain representation in the Riigikogu. In the legislative elections of March 1999, seven parties qualified for representation. Although the Estonian Center Party won the most seats in the Riigikogu, the Fatherland Union formed a ruling coalition with the Estonian Reform Party and the Moderates. So the prime minister and cabinet came from those parties, not the Estonian Center Party.

Estonia has a three-tiered judicial system with the National Court, or State Court, at its apex. The National Court is the final court of appeal and also carries out the functions of a constitutional court. Its members are elected by the Riigikogu. District courts act as courts of appeal and may thus overrule city, rural, and administrative courts. All judges other than those of the National Court are appointed by the president of the republic.

For administrative purposes, Estonia is divided into 15 counties and 6 municipalities (towns). Directly elected councils manage local governments. The state pays modest pensions and child support, and there is low-cost national medical care. However, life is difficult for young families, who are hit hard by a shortage of housing and lack of childcare support, and for retirees, who lost all their savings when Soviet rubles became worthless.

During the Soviet period, Estonia had no defense forces separate from those of the USSR. Since 1991 the republic has developed its armed forces to include an army of 4,040 troops, a navy of 300, and a small air force. There are also sea-based and land-based border guards. Twelve months of military service is required for men at age 18, with an alternative option of civilian service for 15 months.

Estonia is a member of the United Nations (UN), the Council of Europe, and the Partnership for Peace program of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Estonia’s relations with Latvia and Lithuania are loosely coordinated through the Baltic Assembly, a consultative interparliamentary body created in 1991. Like its Baltic counterparts, Estonia is not a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose political alliance of most other former Soviet republics that was established in late 1991.

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