RIGA - Unsurprisingly, Latvian lawmakers have rejected draft amendments that would limit pre-election political advertising on grounds that the final version of the bill contained "contradictory statements." The bill, which would prohibit radio and TV campaigning 30 days ahead of national and European parliamentary elections and newspaper and street advertising one day before polls open, was turned down in the final reading 68 votes to 10. There were 16 abstentions.
"It is little surprise the amended draft was voted down," Lolita Cigane, an anti-corruption expert who works for Providus center for public policy, told The Baltic Times. "If we look back at the elections of 2002 and 2005, we see that political advertising has had a huge impact on voter decisions. Parties with more funds will continue to advertize intensivel. Nothing will change this year."
During the parliamentary vote on May 11, the People's Party, New Era, the Greens and Farmers Union and Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK alliance refused to back the amended bill, arguing that the draft had been muddled up. "Seeing that the bill has been messed up, New Era cannot support it," Artis Kampars of New Era, one of the parties that rejected the amended legislation, told Parliament.
Lawmakers had previously approved a proposal to ban TV and radio campaigning only on the day of elections, and outdoor ads the day before. Advertising in the press, however, would be permitted. Now that Parliament has rejected the bill, the only legislation preventing parties from overzealous advertising is a cap on total campaign expenditure: parties cannot spend more than 0.2 lat (0.3 euro) per voter. However, past elections have proven that, when it comes to political campaigning, the threat of fines tends to be ineffective. "The fine at present is very small," Cigane said. "The top limit is 5,000 lats. This is not enough. In 2005, KNAB [Latvia's corruption prevention combating bureau] proved that one party violated the limit by 50,000 lats, and all they had to pay was 5,000 lats."
According to Kampars, the final version of the bill still allows "moneybags to decide the results of elections."
Those in favor of the document were MPs from the Harmony Center, Latvia's Socialist Party and Latvia's First Party.
Janis Lagzdins, head of the People's Party faction in Parliament, noted that the present version of the bill contained "quite contradictory norms" regarding mass media. It was not clear, he specified, why the restrictions envisaged for TV and radio differed from those applying to the press and outdoor advertising.
"The People's Party cannot support such a legal absurdity," Lagzdins said, adding that it was an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. But Cigane believes the difference is clear. "Broadcast advertising is much more influential and also expensive," she said. "If anything, TV and radio campaigning should be banned in Latvia as it is in many other European countries, including the U.K., France and Scandinavia. Advertising in the press is another matter 's this is never banned."
Augusts Brigmanis, chairman of the Greens and Farmers Union faction, said that when discussing the amendments, his party had proposed meeting voters in person as an alternative to political advertisements. "Obviously, their wish to see themselves on television was stronger," Brigmanis concluded, noting that his party is also withdrawing its support for the bill. People's Party member Dzintars Abikis called the "meet-the-people" idea a "cheap pre-election trick aimed at gagging the press." "As soon as they understood that they would not succeed in accomplishing this, they did all they could to make the passing of the document meaningless," he said.
Meanwhile, Parliamentary Speaker Ingrida Udre, who represents the Greens and Farmers Union, has expressed indignation over the bill's criticism. In her words, the proposal aimed to make the election campaigns clear and transparent, and to ensure equal rights and opportunities to all parties involved. "It's a pity that this great work has been spoiled," she said.