3.1.1. Civic Participation Civic participation helps to create a lasting connection between an individual and the State and increases people’s responsibility for the society in which they live. Civic participation includes a wide spectrum of activities: participation in elections, political parties and political organizations, trade unions, employer organizations, NGO’s – associations and foundations, professional associations and self-governing bodies. It includes joining together in informal societies, as well as meeting in one’s own and in society’s interests.
A whole range of mechanisms for political participation has been developed in Latvia. Over the last decade, a large proportion of citizens has participated in a number of referendums on significant issues relating to the development of the State. They have improved the quality of the public policy even when a quorum was not reached at a referendum. The activity of Latvian voters overall is not lower than the average indicators in the European Union. However, when compared with the first part of the previous decade the participation of citizens has dropped in the Parliament (Saeima), as well as in local government elections.1
One of the most important reasons for insufficient participation is the lack of belief of the population in its ability to influence social and political processes. Only 15% of respondents hold the view that they can influence decision-making in the State.2 There is a very low level of trust in legislator in the society, and in the public institutions and institutions of society. In 2010, 6% of the population had faith in political parties, 20% in the government and 15% in the Saeima.3 There is a conflicting view prevailing about the role of the State among the population of Latvia. On the one hand there is a high level of distrust in the public institutions, on the other hand there is an expectation that the State should have a significant role in the economics and other areas of life. A large proportion of the population of Latvia does not try to get involved in the development of public policy by getting engaged in political parties.4 At the same time it should be noted that no alternative opportunities are used to increase voters’ participation in Latvia. For example, the State does not provide the opportunity to vote, using modern information and communication technologies; they could increase participation within individual social groups, especially among young people and Latvian citizens living abroad.
In 2004, new legal arrangements came into effect simplifying the operation of the non-governmental sector. In the last five years, the number of public organizations, their associations, societies and foundations has increased by 12%, and in August 2011, according to information provided by the RE 14,704 organizations were registered in Latvia. However, a comparatively small proportion of the population of Latvia has joined up in these organizations, besides it has a tendency to decrease.5 A large proportion of non-governmental organizations operates in the areas of culture, sport and recreation (39%) but a much smaller in – protection of human rights, combating corruption, solution of ecological problems and similar areas. A trend exists for linguistically separate – Latvian and Russian – non-governmental organizations to be formed.6 Latvia’s non-governmental organizations are still financially and administratively weak, are disproportionately frequently established in Riga,7and they have a small number of members. In addition, only a small proportion of organizations is financially sustainable.8 However, in the conditions of socio-economic crisis, exactly NGOs were those that provided services in the areas of social and non-formal education where the public administration budget was limited. At the same time, organizations of the civil society are not adequately included in the development of public policy which reduces trust in the public administration. Taking these problems into account, integration policy has to improve legal and financial arrangements in order to promote institutional capacity of associations and qualitative participation of NGOs in the decision-making process by strengthening them as social partners, as well as to encourage the delegation of the tasks of the State to associations and foundations in the areas where it is permitted and possible, especially in terms of civic education.
Along with the non-governmental organizations, also the development of new forms of participation characterises the civic activity in Latvia – community funds, public forums, informal associations and the use of social media. They often provide original approaches for solution of social and political problems. The Big Cleanup (50,000 participants in 2004, 190,000 in 2011) may be mentioned as an example of innovative participation unifying various community groups .9 Donating, philanthropy, voluntary work and patronage traditions, as well as private-public partnership can also be considered to be new forms of participation in Latvia which have begun to develop in the past decade and encompass a considerable number of people. Therefore, the integration policy has to not only promote traditional civic participation, but also has to strengthen sustainability of the new participation forms.
Democracy cannot function fully without independent and qualitative media. Under the influence of the economic crisis, the reduced purchasing power of consumers and a drop in advertising revenue have negatively affected the media’s financial self-dependence and independence. Therefore it is critically important to consolidate independent and professional public media. The presence of the public media in the internet environment, which is being used by an increasing number of people, especially young people, has to be increased. Surveys show that the market proportion of Russia’s electronic media in Latvia’s information space is increasing,10 and therefore the role of Latvian public media has to be immediately strengthened within the Russian-speaking audience.11
In the context of civic participation, the duty of the State is to guarantee that no individual or social group is discriminated due to their different identity and that they may participate in the civil society. These individuals or groups of people are unable to integrate into society due to poverty, insufficient education, unemployment, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, geographic isolation or other circumstances, thereby unable to exercise their rights and use their opportunities. The task of the public administration is both - to consolidate already existing social safety nets and to provide innovative actions using all of the local community resources to help them to integrate into society – including, schools, NGOs, libraries, culture centres and other cultural institutions.
An institutional mechanism has been developed in Latvia for introduction and evaluation of the policy on non-discrimination. An anti-discrimination normative framework has been developed. The main problem is the society’s attitude: discrimination often is not recognized, whereas when it does get recognized, it often goes unpunished. In such a situation particular groups of population have the greatest risk of discrimination, for example the Roma (gypsies). There is little case-law and there are no regular surveys and information campaigns which would make this problem more visible in public consciousness. A positive attitude to diversity should be promoted in the society in order to ensure a tolerant and respectful attitude to diversity and those who are different.