Will Latvia ever be a real democracy?

A citizens' initiative platform is changing Latvian politics

First, could you explain how ManaBalss works? What was the idea behind it?

ManaBalss.lv is a citizens' initiative platform, or more precisely an online platform for the submission of legislative proposals, on which citizens can express their ideas for new laws in Latvia. So these are not just any petitions.

What sets our platform apart from others is the results: 64% of the initiatives put to the vote in Parliament were approved. As far as we know, this is the highest score in the world - we've changed 22 laws so far! We know, for example, that the Finnish platform for citizens' initiatives also works - although there are some differences to ours - but so far only two out of twenty laws have been passed there. And the petition platform of the British Parliament has so far led to tens of thousands of discussions and debates in Parliament, but has so far resulted in virtually no legislative changes.

What sets us apart is our quality assurance system. Before anything is published, we take a close look at the author's suggestion and get in touch with each and every one of them. Sometimes everything is done perfectly and we have nothing to add, but usually there is still room for improvement. We then go through the suggestion thoroughly with the author and ask, for example, “Could you rephrase this paragraph? Because nobody understands that "," Could you check the facts on this part "," Can you contact this professor and check your statement with him "," Or these experts from the ministry or this organization or even this private company It is important to note, however, that all decisions are transparent. These are not arbitrary decisions; these rules are also binding for us: We also publish things that we do not like. Because this is not about our taste or political Preferences: We only provide the framework.

However, we also perceive that freedom of speech is used in the world to damage democracy, so we ensure that no “Neo-Hitler” or “Neo-Stalinist” or any other group will use our platform to directly promote democracy or attack indirectly. If we detect anomalies, we check it more closely and, if necessary, reject publication.

In any case, our main rules include that core elements of the Latvian constitution must be respected - for example, one can propose to change the anthem, because that does not affect statehood or democracy, but if one were to propose an emperor for life it will not be published. The second rule is that we do not publish anything that directly attacks the statehood of Latvia: this includes, for example, changing the borders or anything related to financial contributions to other countries. Third, and probably our most important rule, is that the proposals must be realistic. For example, it was suggested that the Latvian army develop nuclear weapons. We then asked the author to explain the budgetary needs and the origin of these funds, as the proposal has to be realistic. And of course the author couldn't describe what the budget would look like for this idea, so we didn't publish it. We are not questioning the content of the idea of ​​nuclear weapons, but we are examining them with regard to their feasibility. The proposal must also be feasible for the Latvian state.

But at the same time I could mention the initiatives that have been picked up and implemented: additional funding for cancer treatment, additional funding for hepatitis C, changes in corporate tax rules, additional rules for MPs breaking their oaths ...

So we evaluate our results according to how many laws were put to the vote. That does not mean that Parliament has to accept them all, that would be absurd. But we are trying to get Parliament to at least have a dialogue, a declaration. There has to be a due process.

Latvia has two million inhabitants and 227,000 people have used our platform at least once. We only use secure authorization methods via banks and with a digital signature. Therefore, we can clearly state from our platform that it is not a troll zone. We are based on the one-person-one-vote principle. No politician, as far as I know, has ever publicly claimed that our platform is merely a negligible online story. We are respected!

ManaBalss started as a private initiative, an idea that was launched by just two people and was eventually adopted by Parliament as an official petition tool. How did that happen?

ManaBalss is still non-governmental. We are still independent from parliament. We like to emphasize that we love all parties equally passionately and are equally distant from everyone. But yeah, that started with two guys who dreamed of digital referendums. As it turned out, the government wasn't particularly interested in digital referendums, that was basically far too risky for them - but digital legislative proposals, yes! And that was an amazing choice. It took months of preparation and various actors were involved: experts had to be interviewed, consultants were involved ... This process took a long time before the project was made public. But when it went public, the Prime Minister spoke about it three days later. All politicians were in principle immediately on board and said of the first two initiatives that were published, "Yes, we will implement these proposals when 10,000 citizens sign up".

The long-term preparation of the project ensured that the platform could work effectively from the start. Seven years later, the press now reports about initiatives on ManaBalss every day.

What are your greatest achievements?

We have a 64% success rate which is very remarkable and something we can be proud of. So far we have seen 22 legislative changes and more are coming: around 15 or 16 civil rights initiatives are currently under scrutiny in Parliament and we know some of them will come into force. 227,000 people have already used the platform at least once. And the great thing about it is that we are largely funded by donations, so we don't have to rely on government funds or grants. Last year, for example, our total budget was 40,000 euros, which is not huge, but of which 29,000 euros were micro donations. And that enables us to stay afloat. In the past three years, around 30,000 unique people have donated some money to us. As far as I know, this is also unique in the world because there are so many people (1.5% of the population of 2 million). Of course, that's not enough to make big leaps. For example, there are no additional funds for programmers that we would really need, but it is enough to keep going.

Another aspect of the content is that in Finland, for example, the opposition has essentially taken over the platform. It is a government platform developed and maintained by the Ministry of Justice. So she was never independent. In addition, you have to submit the full text of the law there. On our platform, however, suggestions can also be submitted in a more freely formulated manner, so you do not have to be a lawyer to participate.

So you could say that in Finland the petition platform is firmly in the hands of the opposition. While in our country of 300 initiatives, only about 15 were initiated by political parties. This is also because we ask parties to make a donation if they want to use our site. We don't forbid politicians to participate, we just find it a little more difficult for them to use the platform and overall they respect that. Sometimes a politician wants to create a hype, but the majority of them actually accept that this is not the point Platform is. The participation of political parties could thus be effectively limited.

This year two parties submitted a proposal and donated 1000 euros, which is a bit unusual at first, but can be explained by the fact that we are in an election year. However, we will not talk as much about these proposals in our newsletter and on our Facebook page as we do with other citizens' groups. Because, well, the parties should be able to do that quite well without our help!

At the European level there is the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), which is currently being reformed. Union citizens can use it to propose topics for advice to the European Commission. How do you think the ECI could be improved?

Obviously, it is possible to build a system in which average citizens without an NGO or party in the background can propose legislative ideas that can then potentially be implemented into actual law. So if it works in Latvia, it can be done elsewhere as well. This requires preparation time, months of planning, thought leaders must be identified, associations must be addressed, agreements with politicians must be forged, the legal framework must be agreed, personnel planning and PR preparation, etc.

From our point of view, however, what is now happening in the EU is different. We want to help, we want to get involved, but not within the existing framework. We want real citizen participation. This requires the necessary resources and the right people in the right countries must be identified. If we were asked, we would organize a participation process that, although carried out in close cooperation with the EU, would in principle lie outside the EU structures.

What we mean by this is that you shouldn't actually have to change a law first, for example to make German legislators aware of democratic pressure. Because there shouldn't be a law that says that you have to change the law if a certain number of people demonstrate in front of the parliament in Berlin. That doesn't make sense in a democracy. Because how do you measure democratic pressure? But there is actually a critical number of votes above which Parliament should listen. If two people demonstrate in front of parliament, this must not lead to a change in the law, because that is a ridiculously small number. But when 100,000 people demonstrate, it should be given serious thought. That is enough to put something on the agenda to get a real vote in Parliament. In the context of digital marketing, we claim that if a certain number is sufficient to make the European institutions listen, then these voices can also be organized without changing the existing legislation on the ECI. That would be a democratic dialogue, even if it is not regulated as a specific procedure. If 100,000 people demonstrate in the center of Brussels, the Commission could theoretically ignore that because there is no procedure, but that would be undemocratic. So if you had a digital platform that is secure, trustworthy and has a functioning quality assurance system, then it could be implemented that way.

Our proposed method for the platform of the European citizens' initiative is therefore: 2,500,000 votes from at least 7 countries, in each of which a functioning ManaBalss.lv system is used. And when the signatures have been collected, there has to be a mandatory referral and vote in the European Commission or in the European Parliament. It is possible that such EU citizens' initiatives will be used specifically for the first mandatory vote in the European Council. We are sure that such a procedure can be implemented, but we need the right partners for this.