It’s not just the politicians who need to change

  • 2010-09-15
  • By Charles Cormack

Many of my Latvian friends tell me they will be staying at home on October 2, and those who do go to the polls will do so with no enthusiasm for any political party. This mass disengagement from the political process is a tragedy for Latvia.
As the election approaches, debate and intrigue increase daily. The media lap up stories and the interested minority spend hours analyzing every twist and turn. Curiosity about the result is even spreading outside of Latvia, with the UK papers beginning to take an interest in the possible results.

Why are so many Latvians turning away from hard-won opportunities for political engagement, taking a none-of-the-above stance?  The lack of engagement seems firmly based on a perception that all Latvian politicians are in it for themselves and their families, not the people that elect them. It has to be said that the past 15 years have provided plenty of examples of Latvian politicians deserving of that charge.

But I believe that the problem with Latvian politics is more to do with the current system than with individuals. Until that system is changed, Latvia will continue to elect politicians motivated by narrow party and personal interests.
The current system of pure proportional representation is one of those electoral systems that looks good on paper, yet simply does not work. In a country like Latvia, with so many political parties in Saeima, almost any result sees the usual suspects back in government, with slightly different jobs. The deckchairs have been frantically re-arranged, while the great ship continues to take on water.

The same failed politicians, with the same failed policies continue to hold power. Is it any surprise that people can’t be bothered to vote?

I believe it is now time for radical reform of the system, which the country landed itself with following independence. The aim should be to create much closer links between elected politicians and the voters.
My Latvian visitors in Edinburgh are always surprised to see that our Members of Parliament have offices in shopping centers and high streets, and hold “surgeries” every week where they are accessible to every voter who wishes to consult them with their problems.

The reason that British politicians expose themselves to voters in this way is not some strange form of masochism, it is because they have to get directly re-elected. The link between a particular geographic area and an elected representative is a key component of a parliament of active and independent-minded members.
In the current Latvian system the link between politician and place is so weak that a politician’s career is in the hands of the party, or, in effect, its financial backers.

The recent change in the electoral law, which means that the same individuals cannot sit at the top of their parties’ lists in every region, is perhaps a recognition that things need to change. But after this good start, reform needs to go a lot further.
I would suggest a system which sees 60 percent of parliament elected on a constituency basis, with a simple first-past-the-post system. The remaining 40 percent can be elected on a simple PR basis, on the basis of regional lists.  This would seem to give the best of both worlds.

It is a system I know well, as we have it in Scotland, but it also used in Lithuania, and has the benefit of providing stable government. But it also makes our politicians work harder for the support, and just occasionally the respect of the voters. It also allows individuals who are prepared to fight hard for their local communities to get elected without political affiliation to any party.

As October 2 approaches, with the election still in the balance, whoever wins should  consider how the current system can be improved, to encourage people to look at politics as public service and not self service, and to bequeath a better electoral system on the country than the one that put them in power.