Government

The 1922 constitution stipulates that executive power in Estonia belongs to the Government of the Republic. The government, however, is no more than the pinnacle of executive power - the tip of the iceberg. The structure of executive power in its entirety is diverse and has a wide range of tasks, which makes it impossible to talk about a single and uniform executive power.

The government carries out the country’s domestic and foreign policy, shaped by parliament; it directs and co-ordinates the work of government institutions and bears full responsibility for everything occurring within the authority of executive power. The government, headed by the Prime Minister, thus represents the political leadership of the country and makes decisions in the name of the whole executive power.

The activity of the government is directed by the Prime Minister, who is the actual political head of state. He does not head any specific ministry, but is, in accordance with the constitution, the supervisor of the work of the government. The Prime Minister is appointed by the Riigikogu on the recommendation of the President, and is usually the leader of the biggest party among those forming the government. The Prime Minister’s significance and role in the government and his relations with other ministries often depends upon the position of the party led by the prime minister in vis-à-vis the coalition partners, and on how much influence the prime minister possesses within his own party. If the prime minister has a strong position within his party, and the government is made up solely of representatives of that party, he can enjoy considerable authority. In all crucial national questions, however, the final word rests with Riigikogu as the legislative power.

The members of the government or ministries are ‘professional politicians’ who usually belong to the coalition parties who have the majority in the Riigikogu. A minority government once briefly held power in Estonia, but that was merely the result of political compromise — the government was also supported by a party not belonging to the coalition. In addition to party politicians, the government sometimes includes minister-specialists, whose number has steadily decreased.

​The Riigikogu can pass a motion of no confidence in the prime minister, any other minister or the ruling party/coalition of the government. This action requires the support of at least 51 members of the Riigikogu. Since the latest version of the constitution has been in effect, a motion of no confidence has very seldom received sufficient support: in 2001, 60 members of the Riigikogu voted “no confidence” in the prime minister and in 2005 there were 54 votes of no confidence in the Ministry of Justice. After the vote of no confidence is passed, the minister, the prime minister or the ruling party/coalition of the Republic must resign. With a vote of no confidence in the prime minister, the whole ruling party/coalition must resign. To avoid too frequent changes of governments, the president has the right to announce an ad hoc election of the Riigikogu. Because of this level of complexity (among other reasons), there were no ad hoc elections of the Riigikogu from 1992 to 2010.

Ministers have a double role — on the one hand they represent the interests of a ministry in the government, on the other they head the ministries, following in their work the political decisions adopted by the government. More often than not, ministers have indeed tended to protect the interests of their ministries in the government and in the Riigikogu, and have proved rather more reluctant to implement policies that are of no direct advantage to their own ministry. In addition to the prime minister and other ministers, the constitution allows the appointment of “ministers without portfolio”, who do not head ministries. The Home Office is directed by two ministers according to a law passed by the government of the Republic: the Home Secretary and the Minister of Regional Affairs.

The government is supported by the Government Office. The mission of the Government Office is to support the Government of the Republic and the Prime Minister in policy drafting and implementation. The Secretary of State is in charge of organizing the work of the Government of the Republic and heads the Government Office.

The Government Office supports the planning of the government’s work, prepares the government’s programme and coordinates its implementation, prepares and organizes government sittings and cabinet meetings, ensures that the government’s draft legal acts are constitutional and in conform to other legislation, coordinates the shaping of Estonia’s positions and advises and supports the Prime Minister in European Union affairs. Government Office also organizes public relations for the government and the Prime Minister and internal public relations work related to the European Union. Office advises the Prime Minister on national security and organizes the work of the Government Security Committee, advises and supports the Prime Minister in directing the work of the Research and Development Council and organizes recruitment, selection and development of top-level public servants. The Government Office also organizes matters related to state and local government insignia.

​After Estonia joined the European Union, the executive branch of government started to play a significantly bigger part. The prime minister represents Estonia in the European Council, but in the Council of the European Union, the minister of the appropriate area or, with the delegated authority of the minister, a vice-minister performs this task. The Council of the European Union is the main policy shaper in the areas that fall under the jurisdiction of the European Union. After the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union came into effect, the European Parliament started to have greater importance, and national parliaments less. The position of vice-minister mainly grew out of the need to assure political management of ministries on the frequent occasions when the minister had to participate in hearings of the Council of the European Union, away from Estonia. Still, a vice-minister is not a part of the executive branch and has no guarantees comparable to those of a minister. Basically, the vice-minister can be seen as the minister’s political adviser.

The executive branch also nominates candidates for membership in the European Commission, the EU Court of Justice, the EU Court of Auditors, the position of prosecutor and other high positions in the European Union.

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