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The anti-politics election

  • 2002-09-26
  • Philip Birzulis
It is probably fair to say that people in many countries are cynical about elections. But with Latvia's polls coming up on Oct. 5, it seems that the country has reached this dubious state after just 11 years of independence.

The professionalism and the relative amount of money spent on the campaign are probably not far behind the West. But the level of disenchantment among voters is so high that it would be a worry even in an older democracy.

Why do opinion polls suggest that a quarter of people are undecided or won't vote? Worse, why did a recent study by the United Nations Development Program find that 79 percent of Latvians trust their leaders "very little" or "not at all?"

At least superficially, voters in Latvia cannot complain about a lack of choice. Twenty parties are running, of which at least seven have real chances to pick up seats. There are two social democrat groups and a Russian-speakers lobby on the left. There are four serious economically liberal parties on the right. For dessert, there is even a religious faction and an odd coalition of Greens and farmers.

The campaign tactics of the politicians themselves point to the the problem - almost all of the major parties are campaigning on an anti-politics platform. One social democratic part has posters of ordinary people saying they have a right to decent wages and jobs, with one slogan reading, "We don't want greedy politicians!" (Never mind that this party's record has been anything but mud-free.)

The Latvia's First Party, a grouping of prominent clergymen, asks, "Is this a country, or what?"

Even the For Fatherland and Freedom faction, in power for years, is promising that "the state will serve the person," presenting its candidates in jeans and open-necked shirts rather than suits.

Perhaps the clearest anti-politics message comes from the New Era Party run by Einars Repse. With almost no paid advertisements, its using its leader's clean reputation, promising not to go into coalition with the parties currently in power. Only the People's Party and Latvia's Way, perhaps sensing they are too closely associated with the status quo, put a rosy spin on things.

Perhaps there are enough voters feeling that things are on the mend to let the incumbents get away with this. But the negative attitudes of so many cannot be ignored, because they can have damaging consequences. Voters who feel little loyalty towards a state are in no hurry to pay it taxes, obey its laws, or in a crisis, come to its defense. Many honest and intelligent people choose to stay out of politics, denying the system fresh blood and talent.

The problem seems to be structural. On Oct. 5, votes will only be for party lists, not individuals. The complete reliance on proportional representation means that few of the faces that end up elected are known to the public; all of them are more accountable to their parties and their financiers than to the electorate.

The introduction of a system in which at least some of the MPs are chosen from constituencies would not be a magic wand. But it would help heal the powerlessness that many people feel. And a politician who knows that his or her re-election depends on a particular town or district would be more inclined to do his or her best for it.

The tone of the campaign shows that the politicians are fully aware that there is a problem. The sad irony is that few people trust any of them enough to believe that they will do anything about it once the votes are counted.