BSF 1st Forum: How to democratize political parties? On the road to abolish political serfdom Latvia. Jurmala, March 15, 2008.

More than 100 participants took part in discussion forum „How to democratize political parties? On the road to abolish political serfdom in Latvia” organized by Freedom and Solidarity Foundation (FSF) on 15th of March in Jurmala, Latvia. During the first session Dr Elmar Römpczyk, Co-ordinator of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Baltic states, shortly described the main changes and challenges within political system of Germany, pointing out similarities and differences comparing to situation in Latvia. Professor Aivars Stranga gave a short presentation on history of main political parties during the first independence period of Latvia and noted that modern parties lacked direct contact with citizens and had to face the fact that the era of ideologies, luckily, had ended. According to Mr Stranga, parties should be more focused on creating issue-based policies. Politologist Ivars Ijabs informed the audience about the similarities and differences of political life between two periods (1920-1934 and modern time) and briefly reflected on some issues brought up by Mr Stranga. Mr Jukka Rislaki, Finnish journalist and writer outlined the social and political model of Finland, setting the main tone of the following discussion with audience. It was agreed that in order to reduce gap of trust between political actors and society, a number of substantial and urgent changes should happen in the political life of Latvia. Most of these were addressed during the afternoon session, which showed that representatives of currently main opposition political forces in Latvia – Ansis Dobelis of Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, Sandra Kalniete of „Democratically Patriotic Society” (MP, ex-New Era), Artis Pabriks of organization „Society for different policy” (MP, ex-People’s Party) and Solvita Āboltiņa of New Era (Chairman of the board, MP) all support proposals for state financing of the parties and changes in election system of Latvia, which would ensure more accountability of elected MPs.

„Political and economic problems are the consequences of incorrect decisions taken in incorrect manner. The weakest element of Latvian democracy is political parties, which have insufficient number of members and have lack of motivation for active competition between themselves because of current financing system. In order to improve the situation, we need to introduce state financing of the parties and to limit by law pre-elections expenses, as well as the amount of private donations, so that the huge current influence of sponsors on the decision making process is reduced. The parties, in addition, should also concentrate more on explanatory work with society, strengthening regional structures, promoting dialogue with people. We should join our efforts, because one political party cannot change the system,” said Mr Ansis Dobelis, general secretary of LSDWP.

Sandra Kalniete (MP, ex-New Era), representative of „Democratically Patriotic Society”: „It is necessary to introduce state co-financing of political parties. We have a weak civil society here in Latvia, NGO sector is very small and that is one of the main problems, which lays a direct effect on development level of society.” Ms Kalniete also supported the idea of simplified mechanism of dissolution of Saeima (Parliament) and popularly elected President.

Ms Solvita Āboltiņa (MP, New Era) reminded that currently highly discussed proposals for changes in Satversme (Constitution) was nothing extra-ordinary and informed about numerous similar cases in the history of Latvia. She was convinced that it was time to adjust Satversme to the needs of modern society and current state of development of the country.

„If we were satisfied with situation in Latvia, there would be no reason for changes in legislation. We’ve lost middle class, without which democracy can’t function, ” noted Mr Pabriks (MP, ex-People’s Party), representative of „Society for different policy”. Mr Pabriks stressed the fact that the size of the middle class was insignificant and that 20% of those who get 80% of all income already include representatives of that class of people.

The audience was also addressed by Mr Valdis Liepins, Head of Society of Elections Reform („VEL”), who presented various scenarios and concrete proposals for changes in current system, as well as Livija Marcinkevica, Deputy Chairman of Free Trade Unions, who informed about the process of referendum on changes in Satversme regarding mechanism of dissolution of Saeima initiated by her organization. The last speaker – Ms Anna Zigure, Head of Jurmala Protection Society in her speech emphasized the importance of social initiative and reminded that the failure of new political forces, formation of which was influenced by the recent rise of protest in society, would totally disillusion the people and alienate them from more active involvement in political life of the country.

In conclusion Mr Atis Lejins, Head of FSF and main moderator of the forum expressed hope that events like these could become a tradition for promotion of discussion not just on the level of political elite, but also in whole society, showing that everyone shared responsibility for state development.