Election The 2014 Parliamentary Elections in Latvia. Keep Calm and Carry On
On 4 October 2014, Latvia held the parliamentary elections that brought a hope of stability as the ruling coalition government won a comfortable majority. It is likely that the coalition negotiations, also this time, will lead to formation of the so-called minimal wining coalition. However, the parliamentary situation is complicated due to the arrival of two smaller parties on the Latvian political scene.
Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 13, 2014
On 4 October 2014, Latvia held the parliamentary elections that brought a hope of stability as the ruling coalition government won a comfortable majority. The preliminary election results (see table 1 below) indicate that the government’s core party Unity (in Latvian: partija “Vienotība”, henceforth: Vienotība) increased its share of votes from 18.82% in 2011 to 21.87%. Although Vienotība came second to the Social Democratic party “Harmony” (Socialdemokrātiskā partija “Saskaņa”, henceforth: Saskaņa) that won 23% of the vote, it is most likely that the President of Latvia Andris Bērziņš is going to select the present Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma (Vienotība) as formateur of the new coalition government.
The Winner Is Also the Biggest Looser
Saskaņa, technically, got the greatest share of the votes in the elections and can be seen as the winner of the elections. Having said that, the party has lost approximately one fifth of its voters since the last elections and is, in fact, the biggest looser of the 2014 elections.
Table 1: Electoral results in 2011 and 2014
|PARTY||RESULTS 2011[i]||RESULTS 2014[ii]||SEATS 2014 (SEATS 2011)|
|Social democratic party “Harmony” (Socialdemokrātiskā partija “Saskaņa”)||28.36%||23%||24 (31)|
|Unity (Vienotība)||18.82%||21.87%||23 (20)|
|Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība)||12.21%||19.53%||21 (13)|
|National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!”-“Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”)||13.88%||16.61%||17 (14)|
|From the Heart to Latvia (No sirds Latvijai)||–||6.85%||7 (0)|
|Latvian Alliance of Regions (Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība)||–||6.66%||8[iii] (0)|
Saskaņa, despite its efforts to appeal also to the ethnically Latvian voter, is still associated with the Russian-speaking population of Latvia and can be described as a “pariah party” in the Latvian politics. Although the Zatlers’ Reform Party (Zatlera Reformu Partija, henceforth: ZRP), in 2011, tried to persuade its coalition partners to include Saskaņa (then known as “Harmony Centre”) in the negotiations on the government formation, this so-called “Russian” party is still not seen as “coalitionable”. The ethnic cleavage that permeates Latvian politics implies that the President always selects formateur of a coalition government among the so-called “Latvian” parties. The “Russian” parties are thus damned to find themselves in eternal opposition. Although socio-economically Saskaņa has traditionally articulated centre-to-left policy positions, it seems that its positions on the rights of Russians-speakers and its closeness to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia (Единая Россия) has until now played a more important role in the decision of the “Latvian” parties to keep Saskaņa out of the coalition negotiations.
The Shadow of the Ukraine Crisis
Against the background of the ethnic cleavage dominating Latvian politics, it is highly unlikely that Saskaņa is going to be invited for joining the coalition this time. Also, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine has cast a long shadow over the Latvian politics and has negatively influenced Saskaņa’s electoral results.
Since Latvia regained its independence in 1991, it has had mostly frosty relations with Russia. The increasing aggressiveness of Russia’s foreign policy has been a source of concern in Latvia. Latvian concerns over Mr Putin’s foreign policy behaviour were exacerbated by the annexation of the Crimean peninsula to Russia in March 2014. Mrs Straujuma and her government has vigorously condemned Russia’s invasion of Crimea. As Latvia hosts a fairly large population of Russian-speakers, there has been concerns that Latvia might face a similar scenario in the future. Indeed, it is fair to say that the Ukraine crisis has been a powerful reminder to the Latvian population that a war in Europe is not as far-fetched, nightmarish scenario, as many West Europeans may have thought. The Straujuma government has since then worked to increase the NATO presence in the country.
In this context it is worth noting that Saskaņa had a somewhat ambiguous position regarding the Russian invasion which might have had an impact on the voters’ decision. In the domestic discussion on the annexation of Crimea to Russia in March 2014, Saskaņa expressed its support for a united Ukraine and “peace in Ukraine”, but avoided any explicit condemnation of Russia’s actions in Crimea. Similarly, many raised their eyebrows when one of the leaders of Saskaņa and the present Mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs open-heartedly admitted in a TV interview that, in his view, Mr Putin is the best option for Latvia as he is more likely to ensure a certain stability in Russia. The Latvian politicians were quick to criticise Mr Ušakovs’ controversial remarks and have repeatedly pointed out that Saskaņa and Mr Putin’s party United Russia still have a co-operation agreement. Mrs Straujuma even went that far as to suggest that Latvia’s independence might be under threat if Saskaņa wins the parliamentary elections.
The Shadow of the Economic Crisis and the Rise of the “Old Guard”
It seems that this anti-Saskaņa rhetoric has had a certain success, because Vienotība, as mentioned above, increased its electoral support. Still, the party cannot be seen as unequivocal winner of the elections either. The leader of Vienotība Solvita Āboltiņa who also serves as the Speaker of Saeima (Latvia’s one-chamber parliament) suffered a humiliating defeat in her re-election bid. Moreover, one might have expected a much higher support for Vienotība, having in mind that ZRP (that was the Vienotība’s competitor for the centre-to-right voter in 2011) did not participate in the elections.
Partly, an explanation for this limited success can be found in the long shadow of the economic crisis which was blamed on the rule of Vienotība. Generally, Vienotība and the outgoing Minister of Finance Andris Vilks can be proud of the impressive recovery from the 2008-2010 economic crisis that Latvia’s economy has demonstrated in the last three years. The real GDP growth has been impressive in the EU context since the government took office in 2011. In 2013, Latvia’s economy grew by 4.1%, while the EU-28 average economic growth rate was only 0.1%. Also the inflation rates has been kept under control, for instance, in 2013 the Harmonised Consumer Price Index (a measure of inflation used for international comparison by the European Central Bank) scored 0% for Latvia, while the EU-28 average was 1.5%. The government’s successful macroeconomic policy was crowned by Latvia joining the euro in January 2014.
Still, the picture is not universally rosy and the country still suffers from a relatively high unemployment and income inequality. Even though the unemployment rate has fallen from 16.2% in 2011 to 11.9% in 2013, it still was higher than the EU-28 average of 10.8%. Similarly, the income inequality is a distinct problem. In 2013, Latvia had the second highest GINI index (which is the most widely used measure of income inequality) in the EU: Bulgaria and Latvia scored 0.35 and were the most unequal societies in the EU, while Sweden and Slovenia (the least unequal countries in the EU) scored 0.24.
Also, the complicated coalition politics influenced how the electorate viewed Vienotība in the pre-election period. Despite the efforts of the previous PM Valdis Dombrovskis (who stepped down in 2013), the then coalition government failed to implement reforms in education and health care sectors. As one analyst noted, the coalition partners were unable to unite behind a common reform agenda, because they had divided the governmental responsibilities among them as “feudal territories”. In comparison, the Straujuma government has been described as “lethargic” lacking any will to implement major policy initiatives. Moreover, other coalition partners often blamed Vienotība for the failed policies. This strategy benefited the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, henceforth: ZZS) and the National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!”-“Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”, henceforth: NA).
NA and ZZS has certainly been the winners of these elections. While the electoral support for NA has increased from 13.88% in 2011 to 16.61%, the share of the voters’ support to ZZS grew even more: from 12.21% to 19.53%. These parties can be described as the “Old Guard” in the sense that they are “survivors” of the volatile Latvian party system. This, probably, was the key to their success, because during the electoral campaign they positioned themselves in opposition to Vienotība (while still being in the coalition government), but, as the Latvian pollster Andris Kaktiņš suggested, they were still familiar faces to the Latvian electorate which probably was willing to cast a vote for stability, but did not wish to vote for Vienotība. ZZS has been previously linked with the Ventspils oil transit business lobby and the party’s political discourse is deemed to be “far from the European Green mainstream”. NA – that has been described as a “modern radical-right populist political party” – is an amalgamation of two previously independent parties: the old, moderately nationalist conservative party “Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”, and the radical nationalist party “Visu Latvijai!”.
Will the Present Coalition Carry On?
There are good reasons to assume that Latvian parties are the so-called “office-seeking” parties motivated by gaining access to the governmental offices (as opposed to the so-called
“policy-seeking” parties that are primarily interested in carrying out certain policy initiatives and that seek therefore co-operation with ideologically similar parties). The parties might be willing also to minimise the transaction costs arising from the need to negotiate the governmental agenda and policy with a high number of coalition partners. Therefore it is likely that the coalition negotiations, also this time, will lead to formation of the so-called minimal wining coalition (i.e. coalition having only the minimal necessary majority in Saeima). Based on these assumptions, my forecast is that the coalition will consist from Vienotība (23 seats), ZZS (21 seats) and NA (17 seats), thus ensuring a comfortable majority (61 seats), having only three coalition members. Due to the electoral gains of ZZS and NA, it can be expected that these parties are going to claim a larger share of ministerial portfolios when the coalition formation commence.
However, this forecast of the three party coalition is not quite rock solid, because the parliamentary situation is complicated due to the arrival of two smaller parties on the Latvian political scene. From the Heart to Latvia (No sirds Latvijai, henceforth: NSL), led by the former State Auditor Inguna Sudraba, gained the electoral support of 6.85% and campaigned on the platform of social justice and increased governmental accountability. Latvian Alliance of Regions (Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība, henceforth: LRA), led by the former Head of the Chancery of President Mārtiņš Bondars, received 6.66% of the vote. LRA originated from several regional parties that first joined their forces in the 2013 local government elections and their main priority has been to achieve a balanced regional development.
If ZZS and NA fails to convince Vienotība of their claims for a greater share of portfolios, another plausible coalition-building scenario involves therefore ZZS excluding Vienotība from the coalition and forming a coalition government with the two newcomers. Even if ZZS does not take such a risky initiative and agrees to enter the coalition with Vienotība and NA, ZZS still may try to isolate Vienotība in the parliament by seeking alternative majorities that would support ZZS’s claims for office or its policy initiatives. In that case, ZZS might seek the support from Saskaņa (which has on some occasions happened in the past) and one (or both) of the new-comers. Whether ZZS engages in such a renegade parliamentary behaviour depends however on the intentions of LRA and NSL and their willingness to co-operate with ZZS, which we still know relatively very little about.
 CVK (2014) ‘Par 11.Saeimas deputātu kandidātu sarakstiem nodotais derīgo vēlēšanu zīmju skaits un sarakstu iegūtais vietu skaits 11.Saeimā’, http://cvk.lv/pub/public/30177.html, last viewed on 7 October 2014.
 Latvian Alliance of Regions (LRA) got one more seat in Saeima (namely, 8 seats in total) than From the Heart to Latvia (NSL) due to the specifics of Latvia’s proportional representation electoral system. The votes are ‘translated’ into the parliamentary seats according to the Sainte-Laguë method (with threshold being set at 5%) in every electoral district separately (not taking into account the national results). LRA dominated over NSL in the Riga Electoral District which led to an extra seat for the LRA. Also, LRA had a slight majority over NSL in the Vidzeme Electoral District, but this majority was not sufficient for an extra seat to be awarded to LRA. In other electoral districts NSL had slightly more votes than LRA, but these majorities were not sufficient to be translated into extra seats for NSL. I express my gratitude to Mr. Ritvars Eglājs (Secretary of the Central Electoral Commission of Latvia) and Ms. Kristīne Bērziņa (Head of the Information Department, Latvia’s Central Electoral Commission) for their quick response and explanation of the details of the electoral results.
 Kaža, Juris (2014) ‘Latvian Likely to Vote to Maintain Status Quo in Elections’, http://online.wsj.com/articles/latvians-likely-to-vote-to-maintain-status-quo-in-elections-1412262413, last viewed on 6 October 2014.
 Delfi (2014) ‘«Saskaņa» atbalsta mieru Ukrainā; par nosodījumu Krievijai nebalsos’, http://www.lsm.lv/lv/raksts/latvija/zinas/saskanja-atbalsta-mieru-ukraina-par-nosodiijumu-krievijai-nebals.a79107/, last viewed on 8 October 2014.
 Delfi (2014) ‘Ušakovs: prezidents Putins mums tagad ir labākais, kas varētu būt’, http://www.delfi.lv/news/national/politics/usakovs-prezidents-putins-mums-tagad-ir-labakais-kas-varetu-but.d?id=44930364#ixzz3FYU5WVZY, last viewed on 8 October 2014.
 Delfi (2014) ‘Straujuma: ‘Saskaņas’ uzvaras gadījumā var tikt apdraudēta Latvijas neatkarība’, http://www.delfi.lv/news/saeimas-velesanas/zinas/straujuma-saskanas-uzvaras-gadijuma-var-tikt-apdraudeta-latvijas-neatkariba.d?id=45055862#ixzz3FYVHpztA, last viewed on 8 October 2014.
 EUROSTAT (2014) ‘Real GDP growth rate – volume. Percentage change on previous year’, http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&plugin=1&language=en&pcode=tec00115, last viewed on 8 October 2014.
 EUROSTAT (2014) ‘HICP – inflation rate. Annual average rate of change (%)’, http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&plugin=1&language=en&pcode=tec00118, last viewed on 9 October 2014.
 EUROSTAT (2014) ‘Unemployment Statistics’, http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Unemployment_statistics, last viewed on 8 October 2014.
 European Commission (n.d.) ‘Research findings – Social Situation Monitor – Income inequality in EU countries’, http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1050&intPageId=1870&langId=en, last viewed on 8 October 2014.
 Kaža, Juris (2014) ‘Latvian Likely to Vote to Maintain Status Quo in Elections’.
 Kažoka, Iveta (2014) ‘Vēlēšanu rezultāti: pirmie iespaidi’, http://providus.lv/article/velesanu-rezultati-pirmie-iespaidi, last viewed on 6 October 2014.
 Kažoka, Iveta (2014) ‘Letarģijas laikmets Latvijas politikā. Ko tālāk?’, http://providus.lv/article/letargijas-laikmets-latvijas-politika-ko-talak, last viewed on 9 October 2014.
 Kažoka, Iveta (2014) ‘Vēlēšanu rezultāti’.
 Latvijas Sabiedriskie mediji (2014) ‘Sociologs: Vēlēšanas lielā mērā notika Ukrainas kontekstā’, http://www.lsm.lv/lv/raksts/latvija/zinas/sociologs-veleshanas-liela-mera-notika-ukrainas-konteksta.a101232/, last viewed on 9 October 2014.
 Galbreath, D. J. and Auers, D. (2009) ‘Green, Black and Brown: Uncovering Latvia’s Environmental Politics’, Journal of Baltic Studies, 40(3): 333-341.
 Auers, D. and Kasekamp, A. (2013) ‘Comparing Radical-Right Populism in Estonia and Latvia’, in Wodak, Ruth, KhosraviNik, Majid, and Mral, Brigitte (eds.) Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse. London: Bloomsbury Academic – p. 240.
 No sirds Latvijai (n.d.) ‘Programma’, http://nosirdslatvijai.lv/lv/par-partiju/programma, last viewed on 9 October 2014.
 Latvijas Reģionu apvienība (n.d.) ‘Programma’, http://latvijasregionuapvieniba.lv/par-mums/programma-2/, last viewed on 9 October 2014.
 For a similar reasoning, see Kažoka, Iveta (2014) ‘Vēlēšanu rezultāti’.