Many political parties in Latvia are little more than Potemkin villages, presenting the façade of a party, but lacking the appropriate organizational and sociological features. Some are little more than fronts for particular corporate interests. This institutional weakness, in turn, leads to voter alienation, apathy and, ultimately, disillusionment with the democratic system.
On Potemkin Villages and Campaign Finance Reform
The forum on Latvian election campaign finance reform, which recently brought together policy-makers, media representatives and NGO’s (as well as students), revealed the continuing deep divisions between the political elite and the media on one side, and a number of NGO’s and political observers on the other. While politicians and the media state that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the current election campaign laws (after all, they were successfully elected with these regulations), NGO’s assert that the current legislation promotes excessive campaign spending, which could potentially lead to political corruption and undermine the quality of democracy in Latvia. They go on to argue that limits on either party income or expenditures must be introduced.
This brief article intends to discuss some of the sources of this deep cleavage. It will be argued that it is their own institutional weakness that prompts Latvian parties to increasingly rely on corporate sponsors to fund progressively more expensive, yet shallow, advertising campaigns. This, in turn, leads to voter alienation, apathy and, ultimately, disillusionment with the democratic system.
The expense of the 2002 elections, which in per-capita spending terms was the most expensive in Europe (from a country which will be the poorest of an enlarged EU-25), revealed the extent to which parties now rely on corporate sponsors. This seemingly unquenchable thirst for money opens up the opportunity for parties to be ‘captured’ by the corporate interests that fund them. A number of papers and reports on corruption (from the World Bank onwards) have argued that the Latvian political process is dominated by corporate interests. This is largely because Latvia has no limits on campaign spending, thus encouraging unhealthy competition for money and increasingly expensive advertising campaigns.
Meanwhile, polling evidence indicates that these expensive campaigns are deeply unpopular. A poll by SKDS in March of this year revealed that over 70% of the Latvian population believe that there should be some kind of limits on political advertising. However, parties continue to virulently oppose reform, largely because of their own internal weaknesses.
In terms of party membership, Latvia is the only European country where less than 1% of the eligible population (0.9% or approximately 15,000 people) are members of political parties. Moreover, this data comes from information provided by political parties themselves, as there is no central registry where parties are required to declare their membership levels (as in Estonia). As a result, even these pathetically low figures may be inflated. Compare this to Estonia, where parties claim a total membership of approximately 35,000 people, in an eligible population significantly smaller than that of Latvia.
These low membership levels lead to parties becoming increasingly ‘professionalized’. Work that is traditionally carried out by a voluntary membership is undertaken by full-time paid professionals or, increasingly, outsourced to media or advertising companies. In the 2002 election, data provided by the parties themselves indicates that parties spent at least 1,370,000 Ls on professionals to organize their election campaigns. In this way, parties continue to move away from growing roots in society and increasingly locate themselves in the corporate world.
Of course, large mass-membership parties have been rapidly declining all across the world. But membership in Latvia is strikingly low. This is for two major reasons. First, parties are generally quite difficult to join. They are elitist, with most requiring candidates to provide references from two or three existing members. Second, people have so little trust in political parties that they do not feel motivated to join them. This is a tendency in most post-communist European democracies, but data indicates that it is particularly acute in Latvia.
Of all Latvian institutions, political parties have the lowest levels of public trust. Only 7% of the population trust them while 75% do not trust them at all. Even the much maligned Latvian courts and police fare better. These are the lowest levels in east-central Europe. This has had a knock-on the perception of democracy in Latvia. A startling 33% of ethnic Latvians and 42% of Russian-speakers “disapprove of the current system of governing with free elections and many parties” while 35% and 43% respectively would like to see parliament and free elections replaced by a “strong leader who can quickly decide everything.”
So parties in Latvia are generally small, isolated, but wealthy. This money is spent on election campaigns –attractive for political parties, as their own internal deficiencies can be papered over by glitzy advertising. It is also attractive for the media, as it increases their income and leverage over political parties.
Many political parties in Latvia are little more than potemkin villages, presenting the façade of a party, but lacking the appropriate organizational and sociological features. Some are little more than fronts for particular corporate interests. This is a potentially dangerous situation as a state lacking functioning political parties cannot be considered a stable, consolidated democracy. This affects not just the quality of democracy for citizens, but potentially also foreign investment and economic growth.
These powerful interests make it difficult for campaign finance legislation to be intelligently discussed, no matter reformed. The arrogant and patronizing scorn which many politicians and parts of the media heap on the Soros Foundation–Latvia – “Delna” project and other NGO’s only highlights their fear of change. More importantly, it also reveals the huge obstacles on the road to reform.
 Forum “Political advertising and our right to choose”, organized by the Soros Foundation-Latvia and the Transparancy International Latvia chapter “Delna” project ‘Openness in Political Party Finances’,April 9, 2003.
 World Bank (2000), Anticorruption in Transition: A Contribution to the Policy Debate.
 SKDS public opinion poll: (in Latvian)
 Ranging from 2,700 members claimed by the LSDSP to just 320 for Jaunais Laiks (data for March 2003). The average percentage in Europe is 5% (Peter Mair and Ingrid van Biezen (2001), ‘Party Membership in Twenty European Democracies. 1980-2000’, in Party Politics, Vol. 7, Nr. 1 pp. 5-21.
 www.pretkorupcija.lv – political party election campaign finance declarations.
 Richard Rose (2002), New Baltic Barometer V: A Pre-enlargement Survey, pp. 14-17.
 Richard Rose and Neil Munro (2003) Elections and Parties in New European Democracies, p. 55.
 Richard Rose (2002), New Baltic Barometer V: A Pre-enlargement Survey, pp. 10-13.