Voters using the World Wide Web to gain information about the Oct. 7 Latvian parliamentary election have more resources available than ever before, but only the largest and best financed political parties make the fullest use of the medium.
Internet use continues to rise in Latvia. Penetration of the technology is now at about 45 percent of the population, according to the Latvian Internet Association. At the same time, thousands of potential voters overseas rely on the Internet to maintain ties with the homeland and may be looking to the Web to learn about the parties, their platforms and their candidates.
A Latvians Online survey of sites operated by the political parties fielding candidates in the election for the 9th Saeima found wide inconsistency in how the Web is used.
For starters, two parties of the 19 parties do not have Web sites: the nationalist Tēvzemes savienība (Fatherland Union) and Latviešu Latvija (Latvian Latvia). A third party, Sociālā Taisnīguma partija (Social Justice Party) supposedly has a Web site at www.soctaisnpart.lv, but several attempts to access it during the past two weeks instead brought us to a listing of home pages available on the LATNET network.
That leaves 16 parties with active sites. Western experts in political campaigning on the Web note that sites should have at least three elements: the party’s or the candidate’s story, a mechanism for donating to the party’s or the candidate’s coffers, and details on how to get involved with the campaign. To that end, the survey of Latvian sites recorded language use, degree of interactivity, and whether the site offered visitors information about the party’s platform, its candidates, how to join the party and how to donate to the party.
Not surprisingly, almost all party Web sites offer Latvian as the default language. Only the heavily Russian party Par cilvēka tiesībām vienotā Latvijā (For Human Rights in United Latvia) uses Russian as the default language, but it also provides Latvian- and English-language pages. Only citizens may vote Oct. 7, but not all have a working grasp of the Latvian language. Four other parties provide Russian-language information: Dzimtene (Homeland), Eiroskeptiķi (Euroskeptics), Latvijas Ceļš (Latvia’s Way, which is standing in the election alongside Latvijas Pirmā partija, or the First Party of Latvia) and Saskaņas centrs (Harmony Center).
Besides PCTVL, three other parties offer English-language content: Eiroskeptiķi, the nationalist Nacionālā Spēka Savienība (National Power Unity) and Tautas partija (People’s Party). Nacionālā Spēka Savienība also has information in German.
Māras Zeme (Māra’s Land) has links on its Web site suggesting that English and Russian content is available, but it isn’t.
All party Web sites provide information on the party’s platform or program. If the full program is not available, then the “4000 zīmju” (4,000 character) version should be. In some cases, such as on the Nacionālā Spēka Savienība site, finding the platform may take some digging because a direct link cannot be found readily on the party’s home page.
Voters on Oct. 7 will cast ballots for a list of candidates from one party, not for specific candidates chosen from among several parties. However, they will be able to add or take away points from specific candidates on a list.
All but two of the 16 parties with Web sites provide their own online lists of candidates. Dzimtene takes readers to the list posted on the Central Election Commission’s Web site. Māras Zeme is fielding just one candidate, but has no information on that individual, party Chairperson Irēna Saprovska.
Want to join your favorite party? Depending on which party it is, finding out how to do so may be difficult. The survey looked for easy-to-find links, such as “Piedalies” (Join), that would lead a reader to information on how to volunteer or become a member of the party. On this measure, only six parties performed well, and most of them were well-established: Jaunais laiks (New Era), Jaunie Demokrāti (New Democrats), Latvijas Ceļš, Nacionālā Spēka Savienība, Tautas partija and Tēvzemei un brīvībai / LNNK (For Fatherland and Freedom / LNNK).
Other parties either do not offer details on joining, or bury the information. A case in point: Visu Latvijai! (All for Latvia!) has a link on in its navigation menu labeled with the generic term “Anketa” (Form). If a visitor clicks on it, they will download a Microsoft Word document with a membership application.
One lesson from the last presidential election in the United States was that the Web is a powerful tool for raising money, especially if visitors to a Web site can make a donation from a credit card or bank account in just a few clicks. Online payment remains underdeveloped in Latvia’s consumer market, but progress has been made.
The survey found that half of the parties offer easy-to-find information on how to donate money. Two parties, Jaunais laiks and PCTVL, offer links so visitors can transfer funds electronically from bank accounts in Latvia.
A final element examined in the survey was the degree of interactivity, which could mean anything from the ability to e-mail party headquarters to advanced tools for education or entertainment. Here especially many of the largest and best-financed parties performed well.
Jaunais laiks, for example, offers visitors a number of downloads, including the party newspaper and satirical līgo song that pokes fun at competing parties. The party’s site also has an interactive map that guides readers to information about candidates from their part of Latvia. Jaunais laiks also is the only party with a presence abroad. The Chicago-based velesanas.com offers information on how to vote and, of course, why ballots should be cast for Jaunais laiks.
PCTVL provides a page where readers can submit jokes.
Saskaņas centrs takes aim at Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis, a member of Tautas partija. “Pabaro Kalvīti” (Feed Kalvītis) is ostensibly a game that asks the visitor to make decisions to see if the portly prime minister could live on a minimum salary of LVL 100 per month. Not to be outdone, Kalvītis’ own Tautas partija offers a matching game called “Kur paslēpies Kalvītis?”
Visu Latvijai provides video of its various protest actions in recent months. Both Visu Latvijai and Jaunie Demokrāti have online forums.
Some promised interactive offerings fall short. Dzimtene has a link to online radio. But rather than hearing what one might expect—continuous information about the party—the link takes the visitor to the Russian-language station Radio PIK.
Considering the factors of language use, availability of basic information on the party and its candidates, ability to participate in or donate to the party, and degree of interactivity, the best marks go to the Web sites of the Tautas partija, PCTVL, Nacionālā Spēka Savienība and Jaunais laiks. At the bottom of the list are the sites of Pensionāru un Senioru partija (Pensioners’ and Seniors’ Party), Mūsu Zeme (Our Land) and Māras Zeme. But even those at the bottom have a leg up on the three parties without Web sites.
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