VILNIUS - The Constitutional Court has begun hearings on whether the Law on Municipal Elections, which states that only political parties have the right to nominate candidates, is in violation of Lithuania's constitution. A decision is expected before the upcoming municipal elections on Feb. 25.
The issue has sparked heated discussion among politicians and legal experts, many of whom fear the court's decision could postpone this month's elections.
The case was brought to the Constitutional Court by the Vilnius Highest Administrative Court. The latter was investigating an appeal by Petras Ragauskas, who was refused registration in the municipal elections by the Chief Election Commission because he wasn't registered under a political party.
The commission cited the Law on Municipal Elections in defense of its decision.
"I believe this law contradicts both Lithuania's constitution and the International Human Rights Convention, which ensures the right for direct elections and the equal treatment of all citizens," Ragauskas told The Baltic Times. "Our constitution also says that no one should be forced to join any party and does not entitle parties to be election mediators."
Ragauskas said he was 99 percent convinced that the Constitutional Court would rule that the Law on Municipal Elections violates the constitution. However, he added that he wasn't sure how this decision would affect the upcoming elections.
"It will depend on when the decision is announced and on political will," Ragauskas said. "If human rights are being violated, then maybe it's worth it to delay the elections?"
Kestutis Cilinskas, board chairman of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute, opined that the court's decision could, indeed, pose serious election problems.
"Our legislation says that a law in violation of the constitution may not be applied except in cases where all decisions have already been taken," he said. "The problem with this particular case is that a final decision has not yet been made, as the appeal procedures are not over yet. This would imply that the Constitutional Court's decision could be in favor of Ragauskas. If so, he and all others who were refused registration should be allowed to run. And this means the candidate's lists and ballot papers must be changed, which could be problematic."
"A decision in favor of Ragauskas would also raise the question whether [the government should] allow registration only to those candidates who were refused it or should grant this right to everyone," Cilinskas added.
He also stressed, however, that the right for direct participation in elections is not a universal human right.
"It is a political decision 's every country may decide what is best for its citizens, and maybe in some cases it is better to have party lists, which ensure better control on candidates," the board chairman stated.
But politicians believe that the Constitutional Court's decision, despite the outcome, should not influence the Feb. 25 elections.
"Warnings that the Constitutional Court may postpone the elections are completely unfounded since the elections are organized according to existing legislation. This means that the court's decision could be applied only in the future," Andrius Kubilius, chairman of the opposition Homeland Union (Conservatives), said at a briefing on Feb. 5.
He also noted that he saw no contradiction between the current legislation and the Constitution, stressing that "the choice of an election system is a political issue, not a legal one."
Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas echoed this statement.
"I think that some citizens haven't taken enough responsibility for their actions. It is strange that they weren't interested in this issue earlier. Were they unaware of the election system we have?" Kirkilas said in an interview with Lithuanian public radio on Feb. 6.
"I do not agree, at all, that this system violates the rights of [Lithuania's} citizens," he added, pointing out that the court's decision would be valid only for future elections.
Ragauskas, however, has rejected these arguments.
"The issue could not have been solved earlier as there was no way to ask for registration without elections. And it is strange to hear politicians saying what the court's decision will be 's it looks like an attempt to impose pressure on the court," he said.