Under the constitution adopted on June 28, 1992, Estonia has a parliamentary system of government, with a prime minister as chief executive. Parliament also elects a president, whose duties are largely ceremonial, although the first holder of this office, Lennart Meri, sought to assert his independence. The constitution also governs the work of a legal chancellor, an auditor general, and the National Court.
The constitution opens with a set of general provisions and a forty-eight-article section establishing the fundamental rights, liberties, and duties of citizens. Freedom of expression and assembly, freedom of information, the right to petition the courts, and the right to health care are all guaranteed. Censorship and discrimination on the basis of nationality, gender, religion, or political belief are forbidden. The official language of Estonia is Estonian. However, in deference to heavily Russian areas of northeastern Estonia, the constitution allows for the use of other languages in local government where the majority of the population is non-Estonian. Article 9 of the constitution guarantees equal constitutional rights to both citizens and noncitizens living in Estonia. Noncitizen permanent residents are also allowed to vote in local elections. Noncitizens may not, however, join political parties or hold elected office.
The Riigikogu (State Assembly), which replaced the transitional Supreme Council in 1992, has 101 members, who are chosen every four years by popular election. Members must be at least twenty-one years old. Each member may belong to only one committee. The president of the republic is elected to a five-year term by a two-thirds majority of the Riigikogu. The president nominates the prime minister, who must receive a vote of confidence from the Riigikogu. The Riigikogu passes legislation as well as votes of no confidence in the government. The president can dissolve parliament if there is a prolonged delay in the nomination of a prime minister or in the adoption of a state budget, or after a vote of no confidence in the government.
The president promulgates all laws after their adoption by the Riigikogu. However, he or she may also refuse to promulgate (i.e., veto) a law and send it back to the Riigikogu for reconsideration. If the Riigikogu passes the same law again by a simple majority, the president's veto is overridden. In 1993 President Meri vetoed seven laws, most of which were later modified by the Riigikogu. An early string of vetoes in the spring of 1993 especially angered members of the government coalition in parliament who had helped to elect him. Meri declared it his obligation, however, to protect the balance of power in government. His involvement was particularly critical during the domestic and international crisis surrounding Estonia's Law on Aliens.
The legal chancellor is appointed by the Riigikogu to a seven-year term and provides guidance concerning the constitutionality of laws. This official has no powers of adjudication but can issue opinions and propose amendments. Both the legal chancellor and the president may appeal to a special committee of the National Court for a binding decision on any law, national or local, that they consider unconstitutional. The court system comprises rural and city, as well as administrative, courts (first-level); district courts (second-level); and the National Court, the highest court in the land. Criminal justice is administered by local first-level courts as well as by second-level appellate courts. Final appeal may be made to the National Court, which sits in Tartu.
Central government policy at the regional level is carried out by the administrations of Estonia's fifteen counties (maakonnad ). These counties are further subdivided into 255 local administrative units, of which forty-two are towns and 213 are townships (vald ). Local councils are elected for a three-year term by permanent residents of the towns and townships.
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