Election Campaign Regulations in Latvia

13. May, 2005


Janis Ikstens

Foto: AFI

This policy brief outlines the most important development trends and problems related to the election campaign, and suggests three different options for the solution of these problems.

Election campaign has become the central element of the political process in Latvia and should serve to enhance the legitimacy of the existing political regime. However, the legal regulation and the practice of the campaign create doubts whether the fundamental democratic principle “one citizen, one vote” is being observed and doubts with regard to the incentives for a political party to function within the framework of the law. This policy brief outlines the most important development trends and problems related to the election campaign, and suggests three different options for the solution of these problems.

Development trends of the campaign

During the election campaign a very intense communication between the political elite and the rest of society takes place with the aim of convincing as many people as possible to support a specific political group or an individual candidate. With the introduction of representative democracy and the expansion of the active voting rights the significance of the election campaign in the political process has increased, since it is necessary to achieve political inclusion of increasingly larger segments of society.

During the second half of the 20th century the election campaigns acquired their central role, which is typical of them at present, in the fight for the political sympathies of the citizens. It was caused not only by the professionalization of the campaigns, but also by fundamental changes in the political culture of the societies of the developed democracies, as well as the evolution of institutions of interest mediation. With the individualisation of society and the inability of the public governance system to meet the multifaceted needs of the citizens, the effectiveness of the traditional mechanisms for mobilising voters decreased. Furthermore, the parties increasingly more often had to compete with narrowly oriented groups that often were expressing views that were against the political parties and in general against the political regime as a whole.

After the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the election campaigns turned into the decisive battle ground in the struggle for power also in this region. However, it was caused by different reasons than in Western Europe and North America. Even though the post-soviet political parties were fast in taking over the experience of the developed democracies in organising and professionalizing election campaigns, Eastern Europe did not have deep democratic traditions, stable links between the parties and specific social groups that had developed over a longer period of time, stable party identification. Moreover, the countries of this region due to social economic and political reforms were experiencing fundamental transformation of group and individual identities.

Problems in Latvia

The aforementioned trends are present also in Latvia. In the absence of stable links with the electorate, the parties focus upon measures that mobilise short-term political support, upon which not only the distribution of the power within the state depends, but often even the viability and the future perspectives of a specific party. This game at high stakes is influenced also by the concentration of financial resources in a relatively narrow segment of society and the weakness of democratic traditions.

There are several problems typical of election campaigns in Latvia:

high resource intensiveness of the campaigns, which under the existing plutocratic model of party financing increases the dependency of the parties from the most generous supporters;
party financing sources that are unknown to wider public and non-transparent flow of financing, which is mediated through nominal donors and significantly hinder the making of a rational choice at the elections for the citizens;
several poorly considered restrictions imposed upon the activities of political organisations, which in fact criminalise party activities – restrictions to donations and unrealistically low ceiling of campaign expenditures;
low efficiency in enforcing the existing legal norms, which undermines the trust of the citizens in the system of public governance, decreases the legitimacy of the regime and does not promote the development of law obedient ethos among the parties.

Evolution of the existing regulations

The first attempts to regulate the election campaign date back to 1994 when the law on municipal election campaign was adopted prior the municipal elections. It envisaged not only allocation of free air time to the political parties at the Latvian Television (LTV) and Latvian Radio (LR), but also determined the need of setting equal conditions and terms within the framework of one broadcasting organisation, as well as in the state and local authorities’ institutions and companies. Limitations were introduced for LTV and LR employees to prevent their influence on the campaign.

In a year’s time the Parliament adopted not only the law on national election campaign before the parliamentary elections (to a large extent repeating the norms that were introduced with regard to the municipal elections, and in 2004 they were also applied to the elections of the European Parliament), but also the Law on the Financing of Political Organisations, which defined the admissible sources of party financing, set generous limits of the amount of donations and the obligation to annually declare party income and expenditure.

As the result of public pressure, in 2002 the maximum amount of annual donation by one person was decreased, the form of the political party annual financial declaration and the post-election financial declaration was specified, sanctions for violation of the legal norms introduced and the State Revenue Service was substituted with the Bureau for Preventing and Combating Corruption as the controlling institution of the party finances. In 2004 the range of the donors was narrowed down even more, the election expenditure “ceiling” was set at 0,20 LVL per one voter and the sanctions for breaking of the law were further specified.

Notwithstanding these measures, many politicians and also wide segments of society are dissatisfied with the existing campaign regulation, each from their own perspective seeing possibilities for improvement.

Search for improvements

In the analysis of the various tools for regulating the election campaign, the basic principle of democracy – “one citizen, one vote” – is most important. From that principle consequently follows the necessity to put maximum restrictions upon the influence of money upon the election process. However, the chance for any proposals actually being adopted and later implemented depends directly on the key stake-holders in the policy process, so their views should also be considered.

When considering the need of further improvements of the campaign regulation in Latvia, the centre of gravity of the reform should be chosen and a conceptual decision should be taken on what exactly should be decreased –

(1) income – the money flow into the political parties’cashboxes;

(2) expenditure – opportunities of the political parties to spend the money;

(3) the necessity for funds.

Restrictions of income
The first solution would mean creating restrictions for receiving funds: to radically decrease the amount of annual donations; to continue narrowing down the basis of possible donors, by defining new groups that are ineligible donate to the parties, or even further restricting the chronological framework for earning money; to forbid parties to engage in business activities; to decrease the allowed amount of membership fees.

+ simple administration;
+ rhetorically attractive.

– expenditure is not regulated;
– possible resistance by the parties in order not to increase the number of violations committed by them;
– possible resistance of the supervisory institutions to avoid increaseing their work load and making their work more complex;
– the trust of society diminishing even further in the attempt to regulate party finances.

Restrictions of expenditure
The second solution would mean imposing restrictions upon the total expenditure of the election campaign or at least partially (for example, expenditure for TV advertising). At the same time the kinds of expenditure to which these restrictions apply should be clearly and unequivocally defined (at present there are discussion on including the VAT, moreover, in three rural districts the “ceiling” of the expenditure is lower than the required security deposit for running in the elections.
The limits on expenditure should be supplemented with the provision that all mass media have to publicise their prices for the political ads and their discount policy long before the campaign. Furthermore, the legal framework of the political ads placed by third parties should be defined and effective sanctions introduced against political advertising in foreign mass media that are rebroadcast in the territory of Latvia.

+ possibility to weaken donation limits and other donation restrictions, and to make party financing more transparent;
+ apparently simple administration of the system.

– increase of the so-called hidden advertising (advertising material that is not appropriately marked and is presented as regular journalism);
– the necessity to find optimum limits to financing, which, moreover, would correspond to the changes of the value in the survival minimum basket for the parties;
– the need to define and to apply a new kind of sanctions – political sanctions for violations (loss of mandates; prohibition to be an election candidate, and the like).

Restrictions to the need for funds
This solution is based upon the decrease of the need to have funds, it envisages a radical decrease, partial or complete abolishment of paid political advertising (for example, stopping paid political advertising 10-14 days before the elections). Instead, candidate lists should be charged significantly higher registration fees and awarded more free-of-charge air time in public and private (by applying procurement procedure) media, divided into shorter (30-60 seconds) segments. Also this option would release the parties from the token and ineffecive donation limits.

+ the financial requirements of the parties significantly decrease;
+ the burden to the state budget does not significantly increase;
+possibility to loosen restrictions to the donations and to make the party financing more transparent;
+ an opportunity and a necessity to create a uniform supervisory institution of mass media, which would at the same time relinquishing the services of the politicised National Radio and Television Council in this field.

– strong resistance from mass media because of the financial losses incurred;
– lack of clarity about the possibilities of implementing this proposal with regard to foreign electronic mass media;
– difficult to define precisely the concepts of political advertising and hidden political advertising;
– increase of hidden advertising;
– increased work load for the supervisory institutions.

Surely, no single one of these options or even all of them together would fully solve the problem of election campaign regulation. Therefore, theoreticians and practitioners should choose the lesser evil through a debate and testing of various models. They have to do that from a position that respects the interests of the broader society and democracy as a whole. raksts

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