Yesterday I addressed the parliament during the closing sitting of the spring session and promised to elaborate on my views about regional reform today.
Regional reform will determine our national development in the decades to come. It will affect almost every resident of Latvia. Almost everyone has his or her own views and beliefs about the need to reform and how it is implemented, as well as its objectives. Many local governments and inhabitants support it, and many are against it.
I have asked for and heard the views, opinions and emotional beliefs of all sides affected by the reform. In the past days, just like a judge, I have weighed and considered all arguments for the law and reasons to return it for reconsideration.
Considering the significance of the law to the life of our nation, I will first share my opinion on arguments presented by both sides and will then announce my decision.
Law on Administrative Territories and Populated Areas (hereinafter the law) adopted by the parliament reflects a political consensus on the need to significantly reduce the number of local governments. Instead of 119 municipalities, Latvia will have 42 much stronger and capable local governments that provide all inhabitants equal access to same standards of municipal services, and foster growth in the local economy.
A Promulgation of the law
I have regularly travelled to various places in Latvia to meet with local inhabitants to collect their views and opinions about political processes. And I have been hearing complaints about the on-going regional reform from the first day of my presidency. I have heard concerns about local communities not being heard, and real fear and uncertainty about life after the regional reform.
Rather weak regional and local development policy and inability to ensure balanced economic development across Latvia in the past has had the most profound effect on remote settlements and towns, and not Riga and Greater Riga or regional development centres.
And for those local communities that live further away from new development centres it has been specifically hard to emotionally accept these reforms.
I fully understand why local communities are concerned. They think that after losing their local administration and becoming a part of a bigger municipality their cultural and historical identity and sense of belonging might weaken. They might have less chance to turn decisions in their favour and decision-makers would be harder to reach, which means uncertainty about future and accessibility of certain services.
That is why I am convinced that local communities, i.e. smaller settlements and towns, cannot disappear, and I insist, cannot disappear as a result of the regional reform.
Latvia must make sure that the voice and interests of local communities are more pronounced in future decisions than they were in the past.
Each local community must be given a chance to preserve its identity and its unique characteristics. It is vital for our long-term national interests, for Latvian nation and our national identity.
Strong local communities rooted in their local pride and cultural and historical environment, our rural settlements and small towns, are the very foundation of our nation and its sustainable development. They embody hundreds of years of local culture and our folk wisdom.
Unfortunately, regional reform has been prepared in haste. Faster adoption of the law has often prevailed over thorough analysis, due focus on conceptual model and open dialogue with society to explain and convince the public about the various reform needs.
Many local communities and residents of our country are puzzled and bewildered at those who wrote the law for treating one of the core elements of our democratic system, the dialogue between communities, local administrations and central government, as a formality, and for giving promises of better future instead of carefully analysed and precise facts.
Desire of those who wrote and supported the law to achieve that it sails through parliament has been met with equally strong opposition and determination to resist reform by all means.
Reform planning process only made these conflicts worse. I can only agree with Constitutional Court and its very competent opinion regarding the recent poll in Ikšķile: all sides in this discussion should have shown more good will, respect towards one another and bigger appreciation for principles underlying our democratic system.
One of my biggest concerns is that regional reform discussion had little focus on and regard for long-term national interests and potential benefits of the reform to the society and each individual.
Objective of the regional reform is not and should not be to implement ‘linear’ cuts in terms of the number of municipalities and elected municipal representatives. Regional reform should provide greater equality: equal life opportunities for all Latvian residents and equal access to services anywhere in Latvia.
Unfortunately, this dimension has not been properly reflected in the proposed reform plan. That is why many opposed and disagreed with reform objectives and specific instruments.
That is why we cannot and should not consider regional reform planning process an example of best practice. On the contrary, Saeima and Cabinet of Ministers should learn from mistakes in the planning of the reform and strategically boost the reform capacity for the future.
Good regional reform plan should be based on uniform approach. It should be based on the same principles and criteria for each new administrative unit and with respect to interests of every local community. Public consultations should not be a mere formality. Public views should be taken into account. Interests and proposals of local communities should be considered wherever possible to ensure that reform yields the most appropriate regional administrative map.
Parliament has significantly improved the initial reform proposal. However, Saeima has not always followed the same principles in similar cases. Legislators could have been more open to reasonable and meaningful suggestions from local communities.
But we also need to make the regional reform now to be able to implement other successive reform steps.
It is in the long-term interest of all people of Latvia to reform local administrations. Reform will promote a more balanced and sustainable regional development in Latvia with municipalities that ensure adequate and equal access to same service standards for everyone living here.
Reform will give us bigger municipalities with more capacity to boost socio-economic development and provide better living standards for everyone.
That is what the reform should strive for: fewer local governments that offer everyone higher living standards and other improvements envisaged over time. That is what central and local governments should strive for to meet the expectations and reach the reform goals.
Stakeholders have invested a lot of energy and time in debating the reform and ensuring that it either progresses smoothly or drags on as long as possible.
I fully understand that a smooth and universally-accepted law will not solve all the problems resulting from long-delayed regional reform and all politically-sensitive issues that concern and directly impact almost every inhabitant of Latvia. The greater the need and significance of a reform, the greater diversity of views and positions you will get. We all know that.
It is important that despite current challenges majority of MPs have come together and agreed on a model that promotes economic potential of municipalities and offers better services to local communities. Such commitment and willingness to find the most meaningful consensus deserves our respect.
The law is not the end of the regional reform. Defining of new administrative units and their borders is only the first step. Further implementation of the law through various procedures and adoption of other related legal acts is even more important. Saeima must quickly transition through next phases and achieve the agreed objectives of the law.
Instead of continuous and endless fighting, and more conflicts, we need to act responsibly towards our state and make the law work, let the reform process begin. The law passed by the Saeima seems to be the right framework for building balanced and sustainable development of Latvia for the benefit of all our people.
Considering the impact of regional reform on our long-term development at the national level, I have kept a close eye on its evolution and offered my assessment and comments to the parliament from early stages of its development.
As I pointed out before the first reading, one of the weaknesses of proposed regional reform is the sense of belonging to local community and strengthening of cultural and historical identity as part of our democracy.
To help parliament mitigate this weakness, I prepared and submitted to Saeima my ideas on how to strengthen the democratic participation and cultural and historical identity.
And parliament followed my recommendations when adopting the law. By doing so, I believe, it made the initial reform proposal a lot stronger. By following my advice, parliament has put additional emphasis and focus on cultural and historical identity of local communities, sense of belonging and democratic participation in local decision-making.
If Saeima would have decided to ignore my advice to have closer strategic focus on preservation of cultural and historical environment and sustainable development of historical Latvian lands, democratically elected local community representatives with specific mandate at the level of smaller settlements and towns, it would have been extremely difficult for me to convince myself that the law in its current form is worth promulgating.
B Historical Latvian lands
Our parliament has agreed to work on a special law, which will strengthen the shared identity of our people, preservation of cultural and historical environment, and sustainable development.
I am glad that proposed regional reform has made many local communities across Latvia more aware of their cultural and historical identity and sense of belonging to a particular historical Latvian land.
Discussions on regional reform have highlighted the diversity of Latvian identity. We have also realised the importance and need to preserve the cultural and historical environment of historical Latvian lands and unique cultural microcosms that inhabit them for the good of the whole society. We need a tailored and well-considered policy at the national level for that.
Regional reform will address the existing socio-economic challenges and improve the quality and accessibility of municipal services for local community. But it is not designed to strengthen the cultural and historical identity or sense of belonging. We need new laws and legal instruments for that.
That is why I am currently working on the ‘historical Latvian lands bill’ that will soon be handed over to Saeima.
It is essential to ensure that each local community, at the most detailed level such as settlement (parish), town or even part of settlement or town, can trace its ties to one of the historical Latvian lands (Vidzeme, Latgale, Zemgale and Sēlija) clearly defined by legislator in the law.
C Continuity of local communities
On my invitation Saeima has requested the Cabinet of Ministers to draft and present to the parliament a bill on the rights of local communities (settlements and towns) to select their representatives in democratic elections and mandate of local communities to independently make local level decisions by 31 December 2020.
Evolving over a longer period of time into cohesive settlements and towns, local communities are bound by distinct identity and sense of belonging. For centuries we have used specific cultural and historical denominations to describe these local communities, i.e. parishes and towns.
Local communities should continue to be an element of our legislation. They should be given an explicit legal mandate to make local level decisions. That way people would not have to leave their locality to solve local problems. It would also make cultural and historical identity of local communities and their sense of belonging stronger.
Identity and sense of belonging are not the only concerns when it comes to continuity of local communities. It is also a matter of democracy, or rather civic responsibility, which comes from responsibility towards immediate surroundings in the first place.
Local communities should have the possibility to elect their representatives who would make local level decisions and communicate community interests to regional government. That would enable local communities to efficiently address local needs with resources available to them.
I will closely monitor the progress of the bill and offer my views on the precise scope and content of the new law, if necessary.
Unfortunately, Saeima turned down my proposal regarding the local election law. I suggested that electoral alliances should also be given the right to register their electoral lists just like political parties and party alliances. I believe that Saeima has made a mistake. It was a short-sighted decision. More efficient democracy, greater democratic participation and opportunities to get directly involved in political processes at the local level would benefit the whole society.
Maybe, sooner or later, our parliament will look back at the local elections and democratic participation levels and will revisit my proposition.
Long delayed adoption of local referendum law is not good either. This convocation is not making much progress on the law. Adoption and meaningful application of local referendum law would only facilitate democratic participation of local communities and improve democratic processes at local level.
D Further reform steps
Considering the above, and the importance of regional reform in current circumstances, I have decided to promulgate the Administrative-Territorial Reform Law adopted by the parliament.
I believe it is in the long-term interests of the whole society to enforce the law as quickly as possible as part of the groundwork for successful implementation of the regional reform, so as to have the legal framework for achieving regional reform goals together after the 1 July 2021.
If any municipality and local community thinks that its needs have not been fully considered or met at the political level, they have the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court and seek its guidance.
If it becomes blatantly clear after local elections that administrative model does not work for the whole community and fails to meet the objectives of the reform, we can still make reasonable adjustments.
Administrative units and their borders defined by the law are not forever set in stone.
And I want Varakļāni region to hear this. If local community of Varakļāni region still thinks that the position of parliament’s majority after the third reading, position taken despite the informed and carefully considered decision of the responsible committee, is unacceptable, Saeima should be open to further discussion on the matter and possible changes in the law.
It is, however, crucial that these undoubtedly vital issues are discussed and considered separately in the context of the law after it comes to force. We should not bring the law back to the floor and start the discussion on every proposed reform all over again.
There is still a lot to be done before 1 July 2021. To successfully implement the regional reform according to this law, we still need to adopt several crucial laws. We still need legal debate and to decide how to regulate the preservation of cultural and historical environment of historical Latvian lands, administrative regions and mandate of local communities to make local level decisions. We will need to adopt respective laws in the nearest future. Cabinet of Ministers is planning to change the Law on Local Governments and reform the local government financial equalisation system. Law also requires the adoption of numerous secondary laws by the Cabinet of Ministers.
All of these vital laws and Cabinet of Ministers regulations will have to be developed and adopted as quickly as possible to make sure that all arrangements provided in the law come to force on 1 July 2021.
It should be one of the top priorities of the Cabinet and the Saeima for the next session and for successful implementation of the regional reform.