Tallinn - An effort by Estonian parliamentarians to lead by example and freeze their own salaries as part of a national austerity plan was wrecked Monday when President Toomas Hendrik Ilves refused to sign the relevant bill into law. The proposals would have prevented MPs in Estonia receiving a pay rise from the start of 2009 until February 2010, and were passed almost unanimously last Wednesday by the Estonian parliament, the Riigikogu.
However, according to Ilves, the move was unconstitutional and therefore would not receive his backing, which is necessary for any bill to pass into law.
Ilves argued that according to the constitution, MPs can set their salaries for each incoming legislature but cannot do so again until the next parliament is formed.
"I have read claims that the fundamental law can be overlooked if the majority of the people are in favour of this. The opinion that the constitution can be ignored in some instances... will lead the Estonian state onto a dangerous path," Ilves said.
"If the parliament starts making decisions that do not comply with the constitution under populist pressure, hoping that the president would have to reject them anyway, then it means shifting the responsibility to someone else," Ilves added.
The proposals to freeze parliamentary salaries and peg them to the national average first surfaced in June, but by September Ilves had already voiced concern about their constitutional validity.
Nevertheless, the Riigikogu decided to press on and call the president's bluff when it voted in favour of the legislation by 53 votes to 1 last week.
Rather than bow to public opinion, which is strongly in favour of the pay freeze, Ilves decided to be as good as his word and stress the centrality of the contitution even at risk of his own popularity.