Calls for election reform intensify

  • 2007-06-13
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

Many hope that future presidential elections will require a much larger pile of ballots to secure a win.

RIGA - Debate on altering Latvia's constitution to have the nation's president directly elected by the people has intensified in the days before parliament's summer recess, with a center-left party starting a signature campaign for a referendum. New Era, a popular center-right opposition party, has called for presidential election reform, but has not yet taken any more concrete actions in that direction. Krisjanis Karins, co-leader of the New Era party, told The Baltic Times in a June 4 interview that direct elections are not necessarily the best route to solve Latvia's electoral problems.

He argued that if direct elections were implemented "our constitution would have to be looked at in a broader way. It would not be enough to look just at the elections but also at balancing of power."
But the real grassroots work is being carried out by the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, which is not represented in Parliament but is on the Riga City Council. On June 10 the party initiated a signature-gathering campaign calling for a referendum on the issue.

"After these last pretentious elections for the president of Latvia 's where both of the esteemed aspirants where put in quite a distasteful position 's the leaders of the LSDSP party decided that it is important to gather signatures to initiate a referendum," Janis Dinevics, LSDSP party chairman, told The Baltic Times.
Dinevics explained that the party's goal was only to implement direct elections for the presidency, and that they have dropped their previous attempts at more widespread constitutional reform. The duties of the president and the prime minister would remain the same, he said.

The party's political impotence, however, has led political analysts to question whether the party may in fact be hindering the issue rather than helping it with their highly-publicized campaign.
"The problem here is the party that is gathering the signatures. The ruling coalition will not work with it now that they [LSDSP] and the oposition have taken it up as their cause," Iveta Kazoka, a researcher and political analyst for Providus, told The Baltic Times.

Moreover, Kazoka questioned the motives of LSDSP in pressing the issue. "I think that the real reason may not be that they are so interested in this issue as such, but they want to do something about their damaged reputation. Maybe this is some way of coping with it. I'm not sure that they are doing this in good faith," she said.
Whatever their motives, LSDSP has chosen a powerful issue to stand on. Election reform has strong support in both parliament and among the people, Kazoka explained. Before the election, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis unexpectedly announced that there should be some discussion on the issue of presidential election reform. It was the first time a People's Party leader publicly endorsed the possibility.

In addition to support from the prime minister and the recent calls by New Era, the Greens and Farmers Union, a member of the ruling coalition, have been long-time proponents of election reform.
New Era's Karins noted that a change in the number of parliamentarians' votes required to seal a victory would help to make the process more representative of society.
The public may also support election reform. Prior to his victory President-elect Valdis Zatlers was not the favored candidate according to nearly every poll, a fact that has left many unhappy with the shotgun election that sealed his win.
"If it was technically easier, I think that there would be a lot of public support [for the referendum]. Maybe there will be quite a lot of motivated people based on what happened with the recent elections," Kazoka said.

Despite the support that election reform may seem to have, Kazoka noted that there is still a relatively slim chance of it becoming a reality. "It is one of the things that almost everybody is in favor of, at least publicly, but when it comes time for action nobody will follow it through." She added, "After all, why would parties want to lose the power to elect a president?"