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Born to Lead: Ilze Vinkele

Ilze Vinkele is a former member of Parliament from Latvia, where she also served as the Minister of Welfare. Vinkele has implemented several significant public sector reforms, such as raising the retirement age, reforming mental-health institutions and defending the rights of LGBT individuals.

In parliament, she chairs the Education, Culture and Science Committee, where she works to amend higher education laws. With political participation low across Latvia, Vinkele seeks to engage more citizens in the nation’s political process.

Vinkele is currently in the US as a Next Generation Leadership Fellow with the McCain Institute. There, she says that she’s been able to meet different people and learn from around the work and recognize the similarities and differences. Her work is focusing on how to increase and involve the younger generations in political parties.

In Latvia, she says, “We are stuck.” There have been no changes in the political establishment and there has been a solid “old boys club” since the fall of the Soviet Union. She says that even being a member of a party is very stigmatizing. She was part of a core group of individuals who founded a new party that will run in the upcoming elections. This new party is mostly composed of young professionals who haven’t previously been part of political parties. The party hopes that these successful young people who are ready to serve for the common good will help to change the perceptions of politics in Latvia. “Women are over half of Latvia’s population; they should be represented in government the same way.”

What was your first experience with politics?

Those of us who lived in former Soviet states had a different perception of what politics was and who should be in it. The phrase “Political Party” wasn’t perceived as a good thing. I first became involved in politics when I was a teenager. My father was a dissident during Soviet times so in my family, we didn’t have a choice, we had to be involved in politics.

My father fought for the restoration of independence to Latvia, and he was a role model in my family. I’m grateful for that experience - I can’t imagine not being involved in politics. I prefer to do, not sit and wait for someone else to take action.  

In politics, I started as a “flower girl”, or a volunteer at the very bottom of the political ladder. I did whatever was needed and steadily built my career. The advantages of this is that you become familiar with how everything works. You know how people run for office, what are the objectives, and the weaknesses.

I have worked with some very experienced and smart mentors, both male and female. I’ve read a lot of research that says that being a woman in politics is difficult. Women are treated less objectively because people perceive women to be more emotional. Secondly, women are perceived by their appearance more critically. Working with a female mentor helped me not to have those problems and to see myself as a person, not just a female.

What made you decide to run for office?

My first election was when I ran for Parliament eight years ago. I was very active in politics, I wrote a blog, and I was vocal about social policy issues and human rights.  For one year, I worked as an MP and parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Finance.  Every politician should have experience in finance to gain insight. After one year, we had a special election because parliament was dissolved, and I was elected again. I took office again as Minister of Welfare and held that position from 2011-2013. It felt like all the world’s issues were on my desk – unemployment, social benefits, retirement, pensions, and disability benefits.

Did you face any barriers when you ran for office?

I didn’t experience many barriers, but that may have been due to my character. I’m sure that countries and their parties must build a system in which women can feel very comfortable, not just dependent on their qualities or resilience. You need to empower women, not just have them on party lists.

How have you found your time in Parliament so far? What has been your greatest achievement?

I was able to make a great deal of change while I was in the Ministry of Welfare. I felt prepared for this role because of my experience working with children in crisis centers as social worker. You could say that the stars were aligned for success. I had the support of our prime minister, and the policy window was open. We reformed the system in nursing homes for mentally disabled people, increased the retirement age, and prepared for a big reform in the social support system. It was a dynamic time, and I learned a lot - building coalitions, working with colleagues to get support on policies that were unpopular but necessary. I felt most frustrated when I couldn’t move at the speed I wanted to. It is important to remember that accomplishing things isn’t just dependent on you, you have to take into account all the different partners and coalitions.

What message do you hope to share with young girls thinking of running for office?

You must find a balance. I think it is important to have a two-part career. You should first develop your professional background. The key to survive difficult political jobs is to have integrity and be able to answer the question “Who are you?”. You should know what you believe in and what you stand for. If you don’t know this, you can be ruined by power. When you build your professional career and volunteer, you can discuss things relevant to your work and have input on the political agenda. You steadily build your ability to run for office.