Lithuania’s Constitutional Court: legislators need to redraw constituencies. Will they before Seimas election?
Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
With just a year to go, Lithuania’s electoral system has been shaken up to the core. After the Constitutional Court’s ruling that the present voter determination order is flawed and cause disparities in voter numbers in Lithuania’s 71 constituencies, therefore incompliant with the Constitution, Lithuanian MPs face dilemma: embrace the decision and hurriedly overhaul the system or touch it up slightly before the elections.
Among the new legislative initiatives is one proposing to abolish the country’s multiple-mandate electoral system.
Too many disparities
To explain, the disparities that the Court pointed out to are about exodus, large emigration, which many rural constituencies left semi-deserted. In some of them, the actual number of voters is twice lower than in urban constituencies. Therefore the flawed practice when the fate of a mandate, i.e. parliamentary seat, is determined by under-populated electoral districts.
Until now, Lithuanian voters pick up 70 MPs through voting in single-member electoral districts and 71 parliamentarians would come from the so-called party lists in which voters have to ticka single candidate’s name.
The court ruling is binding and puts a big pressure on Lithuanian lawmakers to make necessary adjustments before the next general elections in October next year.
«The ruling has brought much confusion among the party candidates throughout the region. Some candidates in adjacent districts around have been already confirmed and, having secured the slots, they were waiting for a kick-start of the electoral campaign. But now all has been shaken up and the process (of selecting candidates) is likely will have to be started all over in some constituencies,» Dainius Želvys, a councilman of Palanga Municipality in western Lithuania, told BNN.
Around third Lithuanian parliamentarians addressed the Constitutional Court.
Fluctuations reach 50 percent
The Court ruled that, in single-seat constituencies, the voter numbers can fluctuate from 0.8 to 1.2 percent from the average voter number set years ago. But in reality, the court emphasized, the difference is often at a staggering 20 percent, and the disparities in the largest and smallest constituencies can reach a whopping 50 percent.
With the same voters’ activity, the importance of a voter in a small electoral district is way more significant than in a large constituency, noted the Court.
To iron out the disparities, constituencies need to be redrawn, adding voters from larger ones to the smaller ones, the Constitutional Court says.
The chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, Zenonas Vaigauskas, says this could be done as early as by the end of 2015.
«The constituency boundaries are already redrawn, the project is ready and it only needs to be approved. We only need to make a final agreement. I think it will not be difficult to do, because the project has already been discussed. Not everyone is happy with it, because it changes the current constituencies cardinally,» Vaigauskas was quoted as saying by Lithuanian media.
Naujininkai electoral district in Lithuanian capital is the largest constituency, encompassing around 50,000 voters and the smallest ones contain only 28,000-30,000 voters.
Two bills are submitted, more drafts likely ahead
As many as two draft bills aiming to re-shape constituencies have been crafted- one of them includes minimal measures for the upcoming general elections in 2016, while the other, if enacted, would radically redraw voting districts and is planned for the parliamentary elections in 2020.
With the latter proposal in effect, three new constituencies would be added in Vilnius, where the density of population is way bigger than elsewhere in the country; in Kaunas, meanwhile, one electorate district would be abolished, the same would happen in Šiauliai. Some boundaries of other constituencies would be also considerably twitched around, according to the draft.
Both schemes have been under fire in Lithuanian parliament, but according to Vaigauskas, the more radical projectis the one that will have to be adopted following the constitutional ruling.
Following it, more proposals on how to reform the country’s electoral system are expected.
From praise to doubts
Prime Minister and chairman of Lithuania’s Social Democrat Party Algirdas Butkevičius believes that there is still time to make necessary adjustments before the parliamentary elections next year.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Liberal Movement party, Eligijus Masiulis, insists changes should be made as soon as possible and that «cities should have more single-seat constituencies.»
Seimas opposition leader, conservative Andrius Kubilius cast doubt whether adjustments in constituencies could be effectively carried out for the upcoming general elections.
Kubilius said that «not only strict bureaucratic procedures, but also stability and tradition play a very important role in democracy. The number of voters should not be the main factor.»
The leader of Homeland Union- Lithuanian Christian Democrats, also known as Conservatives, Gabrielius Landsbergis, also insists that both the political parties and society have to «respect» the constitutional ruling and put aside their personal and partisan interests in implementing the reform.
«I believe that the final election results will depend on the voters’ will, but not on the politicians’ calculations and attempts to move the (electoral district) boundaries in favor of their political intentions. If because of narrow partisan and personal interests the Central Electoral Commission fails to implement the constitutional ruling, there would be a big danger that results of 2016 Seimas elections are illegitimate and this would trigger a constitutional crisis,» Landsbergis said.
Leader of the ruling Labour Party Valentinas Mazuronis thinks that the disproportion of voters should be corrected, although with one year left before the elections, doing so now would be a hasty move.
Ramifications of constitutional ruling
The discussions have taken an unexpected course on Wednesday, October 21, when the Speaker of Lithuanian Parliament, Loreta Graužinienė, a representative of Labour Party, has proposed to entirely scrap single-seat constituencies.
If the proposal were enacted, Lithuanian voters would need to select 141 names- that is the number of seats in Lithuanian Parliament has- from party lists provided for voters in a parliamentary election.
«There’s an opinion in our fraction that we need to alter the electoral system and follow the example of other European countries, like Latvia and Estonia, for example, have. Now we has this system in Lithuania when part of Seimas members are elected one way and the others the other way,» the Speaker told.
She added that the parliamentary fractions were obligated to come up with their own proposals (regarding the election system) in a week.
«We agreed that we will go back to our fractions and will have discussions there and then all will assemble in my office again in a week, by when, hopefully, we will have a clearer position what way to take,» Graužinienė said.
Some other MPs have registered their proposals which will be reviewed by the fractions.
Some of the initiatives, like Social Democrat Juozas Bernatonis’s, date back to 2013, when the lawmaker proposed to divide all the constituencies into ten electoral districts in which parties would submit their candidate lists for voters.
Quick thinking- and actions- are needed
All those who participated in the hearing held by the Speaker agreed that changes to constituencies’ boundaries need to be done as soon as possible, otherwise the election’s legitimacy may be put in question. Besides, some fear, if that ever were the case, courts would get jammed with numerous plaintiffs’ lawsuits.
Vaigauskas, of the Central Electoral Commission, who also participated in the hearing, was reluctant to prognosticate whether the Seimas will strike accord on the changes to the electoral system in an expedient fashion.
«If Seimas will ever determine to adopt a new electoral system, it will be characteristic to new democracy states, like Latvia, Estonia, Poland and that one of Sweden. Only Belarus among our closest neighbours has electoral system like ours,» Vaigauskas said, referring to the second scenario, which envisions abolishment of single-mandate electoral districts.
Election results will be less predictable
If Seimas braces up for the redrawing of constituencies, the results of the parliamentary elections will be less predictable, believe many Lithuanian political analysts.
«The results will certainly be harder to predict and for the candidates, who have been competing in the same constituencies for years, something can change,» Mažvydas Jastramskis, a political analyst, says.
He believes that, following the ruling by the Constitutional Court, there will be established more single-seat districts in urban territories and third of those in rural locations will disappear.
«If this happens, I believe this can play into hands of the Conservatives and Liberals,» the analyst predicted.
Meanwhile, Alvydas Nikžentaitis, a commentator and historian by profession, doubts whether the Seimas will brave up for any substantial change of the electoral system, especially that it could turn up some unpredictability.
«Knowing how slow the parties can be with decisions, I really doubt whether they will now start turning head over heels, especially that decisions on the system would work against the interests of parties. Social Democrats had submitted a draft on the constituency reform three years ago, but they have not pursued it until now,» the commentator told BNN. He added: «If whenever passed, the redrawing of constituency boundaries would not be in the best interests of right-centre parties».