Game over for the ‘Wagon system’ in Saeima elections

  • 2010-08-25
  • By Ieva Cielava

RIGA - “In October of this year, the election system in Latvia for the first time will have a chance to prove its gains,” says political scientist Veiko Spolitis. Due to the action of the Electoral Reform Society, this will be the first year when candidates will be allowed to run only in one electoral district, says Spolitis. In all previous parliamentary elections, one candidate was able to run in all five election areas - Vidzeme, Zemgale, Kurzems, Latgale and Riga.

“There were some elements in the Latvian parliamentary election system which allowed manipulating with the free will of the voter,” says Valdis Liepins, the head of the Electoral Reform Society. A party needed, say,just four well financed and widely promoted candidates to stand for election in all five electoral districts and thereby get another 16 into the Saeima. The mechanics are simple. The four candidates are elected in one of the electoral districts and open up places for the subsequent candidates on their party list in the other four electoral districts. Liepins, calls this the ‘wagon system’, whereby “locomotives” (party leaders) pull into parliament their “wagons” (lesser party members). 

According to Liepins, a candidate in the Zemgale electoral district managed to get a seat in the Saeima thanks to the “wagon system” despite receiving more strike-outs than pluses from his party’s supporters and being relegated to 14th place in his party’s list.  Voters clearly did not vote for him to be their representative in parliament, yet there he is! “That was a really mean aspect of the system,” he says.

In late 2009 Liepins had a fortuitous opportunity to apprise the president of Latvia, Valdis Zatlers, of the pernicious nature of  the ‘wagon system.’  Following the “Umbrella revolution” the president demanded that parliament change this aspect of the Saeima Election law so that in future candidates can stand for election in only one electoral district. He also suggested that parliament should consider and implement other measures to narrow the gaping divide between electors and their representatives in parliament, but that the “majority” system was not the way to do this, remembers Liepins.

“There were politicians who fought for the old wagon system,” says Liepins. It was not easy to get rid of it. Although 68 of 100 parliamentarians finally voted for the change, there have been subsequent attempts to reinstate the ‘wagon system.’ For example, it was recently proposed that the lists of candidates in parliamentary elections be identical in all 5 electoral districts! However, the proposer quickly realized that he had made a fool of himself and withdrew his propostion. Then it was suggested that, should members of municipal councils and the EU parliament be elected to the Saeima, they should have a 7 day grace period in which to consider whether they really wish to take up their seat in the Saeima. Should they decline the option, their seat in the Saeima would be taken by the candidate on their list with the next highest number of votes, i.e. by their “wagon”. This idea met with immediate public scorn and was dropped almost as quickly as it was proposed.

Liepins adds that immediate consequences of the ridding of the “wagon system” is the creation of new political party alliances, a reduction in the number of candidate lists but an increase in the number of candidates registered for the upcoming Saeima elections. He also expects further attempts to reinstate the “wagon system” once the 10th Saeima elections are over.

“This change in the Election law should improve the quality of the next parliament,” thinks Spolitis, though he notes that fundamental improvements won’t be instantaneous because the system needs to settle. Latvia still needs some fundamental law changes - declaration of taxes and property, party funding from the State’s budget, a reasonable limit for the amount of money allowed to be spent for the election campaigns. “Nineteen years of standstill can’t be repaired in one year. The real gain of the improved system will be observable only in the elections in 2014,” thinks Spolitis.

Kristine Berzina, the head of the Information Department in the Central Election Commission, says that it will be hard to explain the new election system to the citizens, since a lot of people would like to vote for the party leader, but they might not be included in the candidate list in Latgale, for example.
“A positive tendency this year is the amount of candidate lists which are decreasing. This year only 13 lists were handed in. In the last elections, 19 lists were registered, in the one before, 20 lists. The amount of candidates has increased if compared to the last parliament election,” says Berzina.

Spolitis disagrees that this is a positive tendency. He says that political research has proved that election alliances usually are made in non-consolidated societies. Most of the election lists this year are alliances. He continues that Latvia still doesn’t have any ideologically stable party. The exception is the “Christian Democratic Party,” which doesn’t have any chances to win.

The Electoral Reform Society hopes to improve the parliamentary electoral system with two more changes, to make the election system in Latvia one of the best in the world, says Liepins. The Society has already proposed that the existing 5 electoral districts be split into 13 smaller districts, bringing members of parliament closer to their electors. Thus Riga, for example, would have 4 districts with about 6 – 8  members per district, instead of 28 members in one large electoral district as now.

The second change would bring Latvia into line with established democratic practice of using a voters’register also for the Saeima elections and not just for municipal and European Parliament election.  Presently people may vote in any of the 5 electoral districts, regardless of where they live or have declared their residency. This opens further opportunities for manipulation of results across electoral district boundaries. To prevent double voting the fact of participation in  the election is currently recorded by a stamp in the passport. This, of course, breaches confidentiality, says Liepins.

The absence of a voters’ register complicates postal voting from abroad. Citizens living overseas have to send in their passports in order to get voting materials. People are reluctant to do that and this could be one of the reasons why at the last Saeima elections, only some 500 votes were received from Ireland, where thousands of Latvians now live, surmises Liepins.

The overall activity of voters is decreasing, notes Spolitis. Since 2006, when Tautas partija (People’s Party), with its leader Aigars Kalvitis, won the parliament election with the help of an illegal election campaign, voter’s activity has decreased, asserts Spolitis. Statistics shows that in 2006, election activity in Latvia was similar to the Estonian level, and was above the average level in the EU. But nowadays the research shows that 98 percent of Latvians don’t support political parties, 95 percent don’t support parliament, and 93 percent don’t support the government, reports Spolitis.

Berzina says that social research shows that this year, 68 percent of respondents will vote or will rather vote. Since in the questionnaires people have tended to be more optimistic than in real life, action by 61 percent of all voters would be a good result. Sixty-one percent of voters were active in the last parliament election. Berzina notes that the activity of voters depends on several issues - political campaigns, the economical situation, and even on the weather.

No violations of the Election law have occurred yet, informs the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau. As is already known, 13 lists are submitted for the Latvian parliamentary election to be held on Oct. 2. There will be 1,235 candidates attending, 87 of whom are currently in parliament, show the statistics from the Committee of Central Elections.