This letter was received by Elizabeth Rūtens, a participant of the Latvian-language mailing list "Sveiks", from Mel Huang, editor on Baltic affairs for the Central European Review. Mr. Huang gave permission to have his letter posted here on condition that I make it understood that his letter was an impromptu and not very carefully thought out reply late one night to some questions from Elizabeth about the program and goals of the task force "Rītdienai", formed in Latvia to work toward a reform of the Latvian election laws.

Juris Žagariņš

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Anyway, looking at your note about Ritdienai, that is quite interesting. There is English language versions of electoral law of all countries in different places, but that's hard to find on the web. The Lithuanian Seimas definitely has one, since they needed it for the Council of Europe and other organisation. So it's been translated definitely.

The Lithuanian new model is interesting. 141 seats, with 70 as PR and 71 constituencies. The 71 are straight-forward plurality, which has caused some problems this time around. There was a draw in one district, with the ultimate decision-breaker being age of candidates! But that's all enshrined into law, so it's more legit than Florida it seems. So the 71 is essentially like a US or British constituency, where run-offs are not necessary.

The other 70, the PR system, changed a little this time. The Central Electoral Commission allowed voters to, when they do the PR side of the vote, to pick out a name on the list instead of just the party. Using a formula of how many of these 'votes' candidates got and the original position of the names on the party's list, the seat allocations for the PR lists were made. So it was not necessarily exactly as the parties would list, so if there's somene so despised but high up on a list, they can still be bumped (although unlikely). It was voluntary but nearly everyone participated in it -- it did affect some positioning of candidates in lower parts of the list near the cut-off, which has ticked a lot of people off.

The Estonian system I would not even recommend, it's just way too complicated. It makes Germany look simple. It's a strangely-modified D'Hondt system, where the reweighing of PR votes is odd. Technically in Estonia you're voting for a candidate too, and it's a weird system of how candidates would qualify or would not for a directly-elected spot. Avoid at all cost.

You know to get a referendum in Latvia is not too hard, but passing is another question. Something like this will probably fail due to turnout, since people are getting so jaded about politics.

But the problematic part of shifting to any bit of personal mandate would not help Latvia much; instead, I think it will hurt the system right now. First of all, there's no reason for people not to vote for the same corrupt and questionable people out in public right now. People will still vote for Lembergs, they'll still vote for Gorbunovs, etc. I don't think that would change significantly the situation.

And looking how fractious Latvia's political scene is, if there is a 50-50 system like Lithuania, it would cause more chaos and Latvia will be ungovernable with coalitions that's more dangerous than now. Imagine if there are 50 constituencies, and Lembergs and his goons win anything near Ventspils. You'll have problems in Daugavpils, Valmiera and other places too.

One idea I think would be good is for it to be illegal to run on a list from more than one district. Right now most guys run on the lists in all 5 districts, so why not break it off in a way so that there is some regional responsibility?

Again, perhaps reforming the PR system to incorporate the old Latvian idea (which as I mentioned is used in Lithuania now) is a way to make it more likely to kick out hugely unpopular figures on lists. But looking at the Lithuanian example, some of the biggest dirtbags in the country still got significant votes. So it's hard to see if that will make more than a handful of differences. But that's a start.

But as long as VVF is running Riga Castle, I think things will not get out of hand. She told me she'll use her post in 2001 as a bully pulpit and really push things and pressure changes. The gov't is punishing her by giving her office no money; Riga Castle is close to being condemned, I've seen it, it's sad. But any initiative in the country needs Vaira's support, since she can place incredible pressure on all political parties. She's the stability factor in the country.

I think Latvia's 5% threshold is fine, since that's what most countries use. It's keeping lots of the riff-raff out, though Jauna partija got in last time only due to oil money and the ignorance of Raimonds Pauls.

As with an 'optimal' electoral model for Latvia, that is difficult since people are so angry about politics. It's a young democracy, and as bad as it is, I think people should not rush to change it. Look at the US, it took decades for the first amendments to hit the Constitution. The Satversme is one of the oldest (and idealistic, and problematic) constitutions in Europe, and the fact they kept it alive is this need for legal continuation. I think changing the system after a decade is dangerous since it sets a bad precedence for continual tinkering of electoral systems. Then we'll end up in that chaos called France, and we don't want that to happen.

And the fact that this will happen about a decade into the democracy will look more like the early 1930s when everyone was pushing for a new constitution for direct mandates -- many of them semi-fascist groups. I don't think a wholesale change right now would be of benefit. It's too difficult to do that without seriously disturbing the entire process. It could easily backfire into further chaos and division. Instead of a corrupt but barely sustainable coalition, we'll end up with 3-month deals if it goes fully to constituencies. Look at the post-election mess in Lithuania, it's a nightmare to govern there now.

I say the best thing to do is to 'optimise' the current situation. First, ban cross-regional listing. Second, allow the preferential system like in LIthuania and Estonia, where you technically vote for a name (or several names) on a party list and have that calculated by some formula (easy in Lithuania, difficult in Estonia) that's enshrined by law.

Latvia needs to do something to make the public feel it's not voting for just a party. Though in a way that's the case with Estonia and Lithuania, people actually X out names of real people instead of a party in most cases. And that makes a difference, since faces can be associated.

Lithuania also raised the deposit for candidates, so that's why there were far less people running this time from smaller and more frivolous parties. So here are my suggestions:

1) Candidates cannot run on more than one regional list; so if they run in Vidzeme, they can't run in Riga as well.

2) Create a list of people and instead of voting for a party, vote for an individual on the list (create a space for an X next to all names). This makes the ballot paper look huge, but it's a way to make it more personal and responsible. One X could do it, but perhaps up to 3 or 5. And calculate it using formulae enshrined by law to see who gets seats.

3) Make it more difficult for riff-raffs to get into the system. Keep the threshold limit at 5%, but raise deposits per candidate so that people won't be dump and put in a list of 200 people for a 100-seat Saeima.

4) Force cabinet ministers to resign from the Saeima (like in Estonia) instead of serving as an MP simultaneously (like in Lithuania). That would make the party list situation more interesting.

But really, no election system is perfect. We rarely talk about corruption in the US but it's all over the place. I can name congressmen after senators that are involved in corrupt activities. We call it 'pork' in this country, they call it 'corruption' in Latvia and others. But crooks have a great ability in getting people to vote for them, and that won't change in either the US or Latvia.

Sorry, this has gone a bit long too. But I hope you see where my idea is coming from. I think they will shore up the process a bit, but even radical changes now will not get the crooks out. They will end up winning more. Lithuania's 71 constituencies ended up with real dodgy people winning, including 'biznesmen' Viktor Uspaskich, who won easily as an independent and is now head of a parliamentary committee. That's the drawback of the single mandate system for the Baltics. Too small.


Mel Huang
Baltics Editor
Central Europe Review