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Estonia: Experiment In Direct Democracy Launched Through The Internet

The Estonian government this week launched a new web portal that will enable Internet users to participate in the legislative process. In the pioneering experiment, users will be able to voice their opinions on pending legislation before and after it is sent for debate to parliament, and submit their own amendments or suggestions.

Prague, 27 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Estonian government's new web portal is called TOM, an abbreviation which stands for Tana Otsustan Mina, meaning "Today, I'm Deciding."

Linnar Viik, an adviser on technology to Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar, says the site's purpose is twofold: to encourage greater transparency in government while speeding the adoption of legislation. The TOM site displays bills and amendments to current legislation that have been proposed by different ministries. Before the bills are sent to parliament, Internet users can log on to the site and through a chat-room setup submit their own ideas or comments. They can also submit new draft legislation for consideration.

Suggestions that are backed by a majority of users will be signed by the prime minister so that they can be examined by the relevant ministry or committee for possible reworking. In this way, Viik says, draft legislation can be improved and civil servants can be held accountable for their work, directly to the voter.

"The document or the proposal will be directed to a particular public administration department, which will take care of it. But most important for the people is that immediately after the prime minister has signed the proposal, there will be a watch which will start ticking immediately. And you will see the efficiency of the public administration and you will be able to see on whose desk lies the current proposal and how many days are left legally until the person, or the civil servant, has to respond or to come out with a certain action."

In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this week, Prime Minister Laar acknowledged that this system will give civil servants more work. But he stressed that it will help make government more transparent -- a key goal of his administration.

"As I said, it will be obligatory to give to any idea or proposal [either] an answer or a clear explanation why the idea is not realistic and why it is not practical. It obviously adds certain new tasks to the officials, but I think that explaining something to the people is a positive new burden."

The Estonian authorities have placed great emphasis on making their country among the world's most Internet-connected nations. Adviser Viik says all ministers and legislators already have e-mail addresses, and for the past four years, parliament debates have been broadcast on the Internet:

"All the transcriptions of the parliament sessions have been online since 1997 -- the full text, without any censoring. Plus people have had an opportunity to watch the parliament sessions online over the real video stream or by listening through the real audio stream." What about concerns that this new portal might skew the principle of proportional representation by giving undue influence to a particular segment of the population -- namely, those with Internet access, who might be supposed to be richer, better educated and more urban?

Viik believes that the government website will have the opposite effect by helping to level the field. He argues that the rich and well-connected already have access to the government, through various organizations and paid lobbyists. The Internet site will allow individuals the same free access to lawmakers that is now granted to those lobbyists. Moreover, because of the government's emphasis on extending Internet services to rural regions, he says Internet users in Estonia are not only concentrated in the main cities.

"Before launching this kind of democracy site, we first of all evaluated the structure of Internet users in the country and secondly, how the different users would prefer to come out with their proposals. And what we saw: first of all, regarding the Internet-user structure, where the penetration currently in Estonia is a bit over 35 percent of the population -- it's not at all urban only. We would rather even say that the capital Tallinn, which includes one-third of the population, does not at all have the highest density of Internet users in the country."

Viik adds that the fact that young people are especially heavy users of the Internet means the government has a unique opportunity to involve them in the democratic process.

"When we look to the population in Estonia, in the 19 to 35 age group, we see that 85 percent of that population is using the Internet almost daily. And their preferred channel of dealing with public administration and government is online communication. When we look to the future 20 years ahead, we see that this group, which could be currently described as a minority, will become, I would say, the center of gravity of the society."

Time will tell whether Estonia's experiment in direct democracy is a success and whether it can be applied in other countries. For now, stay tuned -- or rather, logged-on.