Mana Balss has helped boost political engagement in Latvia
August 25, 2011
The 'My Voice' website demonstrates Latvians' interest in policy petitions and helps citizens get their proposals heard in parliament.
In Latvia, the parliament was recently dissolved and general elections are on the horizon.
The political turmoil there sets the background for the success of the website Mana Balss ("My Voice"), an online platform where people can petition for policy changes.
Since its launch in June, the website has gained quite a following among Latvians on the Web. The creators of Mana Balss say that it's the uniqueness of the site that has made it a success.
Latvians not apathetic
In the Latvian capital Riga, people are excited about the opportunity Mana Balss offers for political engagement. "I use it to express my opinion on various important public issues," one man told Deutsche Welle. "I think it's a really necessary site indeed!"
He said he'd added his voice by voting on the site, which acts as a platform for developing and promoting citizen petitions.
He is just one of the 82,000 Latvian people who have visited the Mana Balss website over the last two months. Many use the site to show support for various proposed parliamentary bills.
Debate over petition process
In order for Latvians to put their request before parliament, they have to collect signatures from one-tenth of all voters who participated in the most recent general election. That amounts to about 90,000 people.
A new proposal is being considered, which would reduce the required number of signatures to 10,000.
The site has already had an impact on Latvian policy. Former President Valdis Zatlers used his influence to carry a widely supported initiative from Mana Balss to the parliament.
This resulted in a new law that required information about the owners of Latvian offshore companies to be revealed. It took just three weeks for the new law to be passed.
Confirming ID adds weight
Any Latvian can submit an idea for a law on Mana Balss, and other people can add their name to show their support for the petition.
But what makes this initiative different from other online political tools is that usernames are tied to real-world identities – adding legal weight to the proposals.
Kristofs Blaus, one of the founders of Mana Balss, told Deutsche Welle it is impossible to fake a signature on the site. "It's 100 percent legit," Blaus asserted. He explained that the website checks identities against Latvian bank records and the national voter registration list.
"Banks provide the service for free just because it's a good project," Blaus said. The 23-year-old Latvian also runs his own IT company.
Blaus added that a feature on the site allows Mana Balss proposals to be tracked by the public as they move forward in parliament.
Web 2.0 shakes up petition procedure
As soon as an idea has been added to the website, the complicated process of launching a petition has begun.
Usually it takes around six weeks for the initiative to get published, says Laura Zvejniece, who works at Mana Balss.
"The majority of petitions published on the site relate to political issues," Zvejniece told Deutsche Welle. One suggestion now published on the site suggests changing Latvia's election system, so that ballots are retained after a vote.
"There are also petitions against deforestation... and even some absurd initiatives – like a proposal to change the national anthem," she said.
Before the petition goes online, up to 15 volunteer experts with a background in law, politics, and other fields get in touch with the author and offer suggestions.
After the initial consultation, the petitioner has to collect the first 100 hundred signatures themselves, to prove that there is a demand for the idea within the public. Once the signatures are collected, the lawyers transform the proposal into a proper legal text and make sure that it doesn't violate the constitution.
Only then, the petition is published and the quest for online signatures begins.
This is no guarantee that the initiative will make it to the parliamentarians' table, but political researcher Iveta Kažoka from the Providus Public Policy Center says that the site helps to narrow the gap between politicians and ordinary people.
"This is something that the Latvian political culture has lacked until today, that there is no open discussion between members of parliament and voters," Kažoka told Deutsche Welle.
She believes that as citizens follow the progress of their initiatives, their trust in government "will increase step by step."
At present there are 10 petitions waiting to be signed on the Mana Balss site, and almost 80 new initiatives are currently being prepared.