The Constituent Assembly acted as the national representative body and the legislative power of Estonia from 23 April 1919 until 20 December 1920. It was the task of the Constituent Assembly to lay the foundations for the Estonian statehood, to adopt the Constitution and the Land Act.
How Estonia became independent
In the course of the events of World War I several nation states emerged, because the empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary disintegrated. Thus, on 24 February 1918 the independent Republic of Estonia was proclaimed. But only after the end of German occupation in November in the same year, Estonia could start building up the state. The Estonian Provisional Government met again on 11 November 1918 and decided that the Constituent Assembly, an elected representative body of the people, would start solving the issues connected with the formation of statehood.
Election of the Constituent Assembly
The elections to the Constituent Assembly were held on 5–7 April 1919. Of the ten political parties and groupings that took part in the elections, four deserve more attention: Estonian Rural Union led by Konstantin Päts, Estonian People’s Party led by Jaan Tõnisson, Estonian Labour Party and Estonian Social Democratic Workers Party. The voter turnout was high – 80% of eligible voters took part in the elections.
The Social Democrats won the overwhelming majority, the Labour Party was on the second place. The elections proved that the people voted for the independent, democratic Republic of Estonia. Several future statesmen of the Republic of Estonia were elected members of the Constituent Assembly: Kaarel Eenpalu, Jüri Jaakson, Juhan Kukk, Ants Piip, Konstantin Päts, August Rei, Otto Strandman, Jaan Teemant, Jaan Tõnisson and Jüri Uluots. The delegates represented a variety of professions, there were 25 lawyers, 11 journalists, 7 agronomists, 6 farmers, 3 teachers, 2 writers and 2 students. Seven women were elected to the Constituent Assembly.
Members of the Constituent Assembly
The Constituent Assembly had 120 seats. Altogether 173 persons held a seat there: 164 men and 9 women. 80 of them were members of the Constituent Assembly from its first sitting to the last. The remaining 40 seats were held by several people by turns. The eldest member was Johannes Meyer, born in 1858, from the German-Baltic Party, the youngest was Hugo Bernhard Kikson, born in 1898, who was a Social Democrat.
When we look at the list of the deputies, we can draw a collective portrait of an average member of the Constituent Assembly: a man of around forty, born in the 1880s, who is an intellectual with leftist views.
Work of the Constituent Assembly
The Constituent Assembly met for the first time on 23 April 1919 in Tallinn, in Estonia Concert Hall, and elected the Social Democrat August Rei its Chairman. It also formed a new government, headed by Otto Strandman, member of the Labour Party. The Constituent Assembly had two main tasks: to prepare the Constitution of Estonia and the Land Act. Most of the sittings of the Constituent Assembly were held in the White Hall of Toompea Castle.
The Constituent Assembly held five sessions or 170 sittings, where 88 laws were passed. They included Public Elementary Schools Act, which laid the foundation for the education reform, and also Act on the Elimination of Social Estates and Marital Status Act, which separated the church from the state, etc. During their term of office, the members of the Constituent Assembly also sent greetings to foreign states, discussed the problems connected with research and culture, followed the events in foreign policy and expressed their opinion about them.
On 20 December 1920, I Riigikogu convened and the work of the Constituent Assembly was thus completed. It is noteworthy that the Constituent Assembly finished it activities without any long speeches of praise, leaving it to the future generations to judge the value of the work they had done.
The achievements of the Constituent Assembly deserve high recognition even by today’s standards: without any major conflicts between political parties, they managed to solve the issues that were vital for the state of Estonia.
Significance of the Constituent Assembly
The Constituent Assembly prepared and adopted several declarations, laws and other documents that were vital for the sovereignty of Estonia. These documents included:
- On 19 May 1919, the Constituent Assembly reaffirmed the Estonian Declaration of Independence and adopted Statement of the Constituent Assembly on the National Sovereignty and Independence of Estonia (PDF, 743kB) (in Estonian).
The purpose of this document was to inform the world of the will of the people of Estonia. It also gave the Estonian diplomats a legal basis in the fight for the recognition of the Republic of Estonia.
- On 4 July 1919, the Constituent Assembly adopted a temporary Constitution of Estonia or „The Provisional Order of Government for the Republic of Estonia”. With this document, it was declared that the supreme power was vested in the people and the Constituent Assembly exercised that power. Most of the existing legislative acts were approved. The Constituent Assembly appointed governments to office and accepted their resignations, passed the state budget and decided the issues of war and peace. Thus the Constituent Assembly functioned as a parliament.
- On 10 October 1919, the Constituent Assembly passed the Land Act that was one of the most radical Land Acts in Europe at that time, and completely met the expectations of the people. The lands of the manorial estates were nationalised, divided into parcels and redistributed to small farmers. With this, the Estonian War of Independence, which was still going on, really became a war for the land of Estonia.
- On 13 February 1920, the Constituent Assembly ratified the Peace treaty with Soviet Russia that had been signed in Tartu on 2 February. The Estonian War of Independence had started with the attack of the Red Army on 28 November 1918. Thus the elections to and the work of the Constituent Assembly took place at the same time with the War of Independence.
- On 15 June 1920, the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution of Estonia. This was the law on which the life in Estonia was based for the next 14 years. The people, the bearer of the supreme power, could exercise their will through parliamentary elections, referendums and public initiatives. Unicameral Riigikogu with 100 seats became the national representative body. The institution of the president was not established, the representative functions were performed by the Prime Minister, who was called the State Elder. The government was appointed to office and released from office by the Riigikogu, and the Government was accountable to the Riigikogu.
Fate of the members of the Constituent Assembly
The members of the Constituent Assembly were also touched by the turbulent times that were to come. 26 of them died in 1920–1939, of the rest, at least 26 left Estonia during World War II. It is known that at least 32 members of the Constituent Assembly who stayed in Estonia were repressed by the Soviet occupation powers. But the names of all of them will always have a place of honour in the history of Estonia.
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