10.000 online signatures may change a law in Latvia

ManaBalss video cover

Mana Balss - see the video below article. For subtitles in English or Russian, start the video and click the Tools-wheel [green arrow] and choose Subtitles > English or >Russian

By Ole Aabenhus

Once upon a time, in 2011, two young guys in Latvia were discussing how to make people take a more active part in politics. One was Kristofs Blaus, an internet entrepreneur, the other Janis Erts, who had a background in advertising. Their brainchild, baptised Mana Balss (“My Voice”), was a system for citizens to introduce an issue for discussion in the Saeima, the Latvian Parliament, or a law amendment, on the condition that they could muster 10.000 signatures.

2011 was turbulent times in Latvia. For several years a constant debate had been dealing with the fact that Latvia was more or less run by oligarchs, and that some of them were well entrenched in the Saeima, so people had started loosing confidence in the type of democracy that followed Soviet communism.

In May that year the first arrests took place. Three oligarch-MPs were involved, and public outrage exploded as it turned out that one of them could use his parliamentary immunity to protect his property from search and seizure. Soon there were thousands of protesters outside Parliament. Delna, the Latvian version of Transparency International, set up a list of ”The First 10 Steps to Recover the Stolen Country”, one of which was to ”Increase the opportunities for the public to participate in decision-making”.


madara peipina NOrdic FutureMadara Peipina

The way out of chaos
The question was: “What kind of change was necessary for us not to end up in same place in the future”, explains Madara Peipina, an activist who ran the Mana Balss office until July this year. “There was chaos, but we could not just let everybody keep talking. We had to find a way to harvest ideas”.

The way turned out to be this idea of Blaus and Erts. “In a way it was a crazy idea to set up a system, where anybody could submit a proposal that would go straight to Parliament”, Madara Peipina says today, but at the time foundations and others were eager to support the idea, and they found the money necessary to develop the set of “tools”.

The two most important tools when you set up a system like Mana Balss are: 1) Some sort of filter to make sure that the proposals submitted can make sense in the political process, and 2) a way to prove that the signatures collected are not fake.

Solution 1: Mana Balss set up a group of 15 volunteer experts with a background in law, politics and other fields. They review proposals, get in touch with the author and offer suggestions.

The proposals have to conform to five criteria – they cannot be against the constitution, they cannot be racist, discriminatory against specific groups etc. The positive side, they have to be “pro” something, and they have to be legally possible.

In the beginning you could just collect 100 votes, to show that people were interested, and then the idea went on automatically. “But we got rid of that. It created a lot of confusion. Often we had to pull back the proposal and check it with all the criteria”.

Solution 2: If you want to vote, you have to sign through your internet banking system. In Latvia more than 75 per cent of the population use internet banking, and all retirees receive their pensions through their internet bank account.

But still not everybody has access to computers. “No”, Madara Peipina admits, “many complained, and actually the law provides for handing in signatures on paper as well. But we at Mana Balss don’t do it. We provide services for online, digital voting. If you want to, you can vote on paper as well, and in such cases we help with advice. There has been cases where almost 1/3 of the signatures were on paper, but then it is for Parliament to check the signatures….”

One of the great advantages of the internet is that you can involve social media. “80 per cent of our traffic comes from social media, because every time you sign a petition, you’re asked to share online, saying “I just signed this petition, and I invite you to sign it as well”. That’s how most people get to know about it. - Linking these e-democarcy initiatives with social media is quite crucial”.

Rate: 8 of 17
In all, 17 petitions been submitted to parliament since 2011. Of these, Parliament has voted yes to eight – meaning that there has been a new law or a law amendment. The proposals have ranged from changing the school system, over limiting the use of synthetic drugs, to changing the constitution.

Last year there were 400.000 signatures submitted by more than 120.000 people. For comparison, Latvia has approx. 2 million inhabitants, and voter turnout is normally around 900-950.000.

“Actually one of the most successful, and one of the first, was about Mana Balss itself”, says Madara Peipina. “It was about a new participation mechanism in Latvia, called Collective Submission. So, it is now a law that a proposal that gathers 10.000 signatures can be submitted to Parliament”.

“Another one was on new law provisions regarding MPs’ ethical behaviour – setting up new , stricter consequences in case they break their ethical code. They may be banned from attending parliamentary sittings, or their parliamentary salaries could be reduced”.

Never any stupid proposals? – “Yes, some very populist or very radical”.

Popular brand
“Mana Balss became very popular, it is the most visible citizens’ initiative around, the best branded. People really started to feel that this is their own thing – a kind of common property that everyone owns”, says Madara Peipina.

“We also got very positive feed-back from media, except for couple of cases”. Which ones?
“At one point people wanted to impeach the president of Latvia, and we did not allow to publish that. This became a big story in the media”.

From the beginning, the Mana Balss has been quite open. But this means, that a couple of the themes sent out for online voting had been instigated by a political party.

Madara’s comment: “At first the political parties said that 10.000 votes don’t count, but they found our that if they started to work with us, they would stand a better chance to look good in the eyes of the public. And we cannot shut them out”.

Three proposals

At the European level:
Problems with the ECI
The Mana Balss has worked well. What does Madara Peipina think of the European Citizens’ Initiative, often abbreviated ECI?

No, the system has not worked well for civic society, she thinks. There are lots of bureaucratic obstacles which slow campaigns down. Mana Balss has been invited to present ideas to the Commission on how to improve the ECI.

The main suggestions were that:
- You should be allowed to build a users’ database and collect emails in order to give them feed back and motivate people. - As it is now, you have to erase all the data. You can’t send an email to those who vote, or use the data for campaigning purposes.
- Also, the data requirements in the 28 member countries are totally different from one country to the next, so the campaigners have had to build a system of their own on how to collect those votes.
- There is no detailed feed-back.
- And the Commission has to make it clear, that the proposals are actually taken serious in the political process. “The campaigners had a feeling that even if they collected those 1 million votes, what happened at the Commission was just a hearing. Once the hearing was over, they said thank you for your participation, but we are going to do it our own way anyway. As far as I understood, not one of the proposals had really been taken into account by the European Commission”.

Further reading:
Article in Foreign Policy 2013, in New York Times 2011.
The Mana Balss (“My Voice”) homepage https://manabalss.lv/ is in Latvian and Russian only. But the movie below has subtitles in English; click the Tools-wheel and choose Subtitles > English.
Video statement in English by the Latvian minister of foreign affairs, on Mana Balss, found here.


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