Election A coalition of coalitions: The 2010 Parliamentary elections in Latvia
With several old parties joined in new constellations, the Latvian party landscape may have turned its back on party fragmentation. The Latvian autumn sky is however clouded by low turnout, the lingering issue of corruption, and, in the shadow of the economic crisis, reports about possible vote-buying.
Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 9, 2010
With several old parties joined in new constellations, the Latvian party landscape may have turned its back on party fragmentation. The Latvian autumn sky is however clouded by low turnout, the lingering issue of corruption, and, in the shadow of the economic crisis, reports about possible vote-buying. Still, talks of collaboration between multi-party constellations tell of a willingness to share responsibility for solving the economic problems of the country.
Many parties, yet less fragmentation
On the face of it, the Latvian party landscape that emerged in the 2010 elections gives the impression of a less fragmented system than before. Beneath the surface of five pre-electoral coalitions or party unions, however, there is a range of different parties. Vienotība (Unity), which – according to the preliminary results – won 33 of the 100 seats, consists of three parties, two of which are in the incumbent government: Jaunais Laiks (JL, New Era), Pilsoniskā Savienība (PS, Civic Union). The ideological framing of the association could be described as centre, with the more centre-right JL on the one hand and the centre-left Sabiedrība citai politikai on the other.[i]
The center-left, Russia-leaning Saskaņas centrs (SC, Harmony Centre) is an amalgamation of several parties that together won 29 seats. The Greens and Farmers Union, Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība (ZZS), which won 22 seats, is also a collaboration between individual parties, sometimes described as right-wing. Likewise, the new association Par Labu Latviju! (PLL, For a Good Latvia!), headed by the so-called oligarchs Šķele and Šlesers, includes the People’s Party (TP) as well as the merged The First Party of Latvia and Latvia’s Way, LPP/LC. In this new right-wing constellation containing a touch of religious ideals and anti-gay sentiments from the First Party of Latvia[ii], they won 8 seats, a significant drop from the 33 seats that these parties held in the 9th Saeima.
The nationalist Tēvzemei un Brīvībai (For Fatherland and Freedom) TB-LNNK kept their 8 seats. For the 2010 elections, they have chosen to share lists with the more radical nationalist Visu Latvijai! (All for Latvia!) in VL/TB-LNNK, which may have consequences for government formation. The younger VL! has previously been described as racist,[iii] and in 2004, one of the current leaders voiced demands on strict limits on how many can naturalize, i.e., become Latvian citizens every year.[iv]
Whether the many pre-electoral coalitions will eventually lead to a less fragmented party system remains to be seen: future collaboration within and between the new pre-electoral coalitions in government will provide the ultimate test.
Incumbent Prime Minister re-elected
The strong support for Vienotība suggests that the incumbent Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis can remain in office to lead the new government. Other candidates for the post presented during the election campaign are Ivars Lembergs, the long-time mayor of Ventspils sometimes referred to as an oligarch, endorsed by ZZS, Jānis Urbanovičs from SC, and Ainārs Šlesers from PLL.
No agreement has yet been announced, but from a technical perspective, there are several coalition possibilities. Vienotība and ZZS could form a minimum winning coalition of 55 seats. ZZS has been in several different coalition governments, and seems to be a likely partner for the three-party constellation Vienotība. Such a coalition might become more complicated than the two constellations at first glance suggest: a coalition of coalitions could require extra efforts in negotiating between as well as within the constellations. First, this coalition would include five parties. Second, two of the Vienotība parties were one up until 2008, which may add to the collaboration.
The incumbent coalition – JL, PS (both in Vienotība), ZZS, and TB-LNNK, might also prefer to continue collaborating. That would, however, make them an oversized coalition, that is, they would have a broader parliamentary support than necessary. Working in an oversized coalition could become problematic, especially for the smaller coalition partner, in this case the nationalist VL/TB-LNNK.
During the first days after the elections, Saskaņas centrs (SC) has been mentioned in terms of collaboration with Vienotība. Together, they would control 62 seats –assuming that they manage to work together. Coalition government with these two major party unions could be a way to continue steering the country out of the economic crisis with a majority based on compromises that derive from both sides of the Latvian-Russian ethnic divide, which may make it more legitimate. If stable, it could work towards disarming the ethnic split in a time of crisis, although both SC and Vienotība also risk losing votes because of the collaboration. If the incumbent government instead chooses to continue working together and add a portfolio or cabinet seat for SC – which seems to be the suggestion on the table at the moment – tensions between the nationalist parties and SC could surface.
Multi-district candidacy no longer allowed
Latvia has a presidential, parliamentary system with a single chamber of 100 seats. There are five electoral districts that differ in several respects, including the number of deputies and the ethnic mix of the population. In the last two Saeima elections, 2002 and 2006, voters were offered 19 and 20 different lists/parties to choose from. In the 2010 elections, only 13 lists were registered – possibly as a consequence of the many new party unions. The total number of candidates increased roughly 20 percent compared to the 2002 and 2006 elections. The increase could be read as a sign of increased participation, yet some recent institutional changes may have played an important part in the increase of candidates.
In previous elections, candidates were allowed to stand in more than one electoral district. Multi-district candidacies were a common practice, not least among the key candidates of parties. Such a system may lead parties to restrict party leadership to a small group of people, who may then gain votes in several different districts. And indeed, Latvian parties are often understood in terms of their party leader, rather than as a team of politicians. A recent amendment of the election law has put an end to multi-district candidacies, which in practice means that individual candidates can now only run in one district, a change that was appraised as good by the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.[v] One purpose of the amendment was to close a perceived gap between voters and representatives, and it was advocated by the Electoral Reform Society, an NGO that also works for the establishment of an electoral register and smaller electoral districts.
Multi-district candidacy no longer being a possibility, parties have been required to construct lists that cannot overlap. For parties that do not have sufficient numbers of well-known, vote-attracting candidates, creating a union of several parties is a viable option. Teaming up with other parties will increase the number of candidates, and could strengthen the parties in different districts. Although likely not the sole cause of change, the electoral amendments may have led to the many party unions and, consequently, the lower number of registered lists in the 2010 Saeima elections. Furthermore, if the amendments are not reversed, 2010 may mark the start of altered power relations within some Latvian parties. More significantly, this may also work towards a possibility of party system stability, a system where parties are encouraged to develop organizations in which different ideas and exchange between internal factions are less likely to lead to party splits.
The economy and other issues in the elections
Since the severe economic downturn is still affecting Latvia, the main issue of the 2010 elections was, in short, the economy. With a € 7.5 billion loan from, among others, the IMF, the EU and the World Bank, the serious financial situation is expected to turn around with positive annual growth again in early 2011, according to the IMF Executive Board in early August. EMU membership is high on the Latvian political agenda, as is handling the gray economy. Recent projections say that about one fifth of the population was unemployed in 2010[vi], and many Latvians leave for possibly better prospects of finding work in other countries, which may affect both economic recovery and participation in democratic procedures. During the election campaign, the main opposition party, Saskaņas centrs has voiced renegotiation of the conditions of the financial bailout. Although that might be an option, Latvia is likely to face more stern economic changes in the near future, and the economic crisis will remain at the center of Latvian politics in the near future.
The ethnic split in Latvian society is related to the change in ethnic composition that took place during the Soviet period, when the Russian part of the population increased. A significant share of the inhabitants of Latvia are still non-citizens, which among other things mean that they are not allowed to vote. The party landscape is still largely divided across the Latvian-Russian line, with some parties more clearly than others attracting Russian-speaking voters and candidates, and other parties cultivating a more strictly Latvian, nationalist profile. PCTVL and Saskaņas centrs are frequently referred to as the “Russian” parties, with PCTVL advocating the Russian issue as a human rights issue. The clearly Latvian nationalist TB-LNNK seems to have taken a more radical turn by teaming up with VL. Outside of political life, citizenship and the language used in teaching are more prominent issues related to the ethnic split. Observers have pointed out that the increased number of votes for SC might mean that the party has managed to attract more Latvian-speaking voters.
Corruption, campaign financing and media ownership
Another long-standing problem in Latvia is corruption, and World Bank researchers have suggested that Latvia could be seen as a case of a high degree of state capture.[vii] Latvia has seen several corruption scandals unfold since the early ’90s, one of them being “Jurmala-gate”, a vote-buying scandal and bribes in municipal politics in 2005 and 2006.[viii]
A few days before the elections, media reported that the risk of vote-buying increased in the shadow of the economic crisis. The risk of possible falsification of election results was also pointed out as a potential problem.[ix] For the elections, the Central electoral commission trained volunteers as observers, to attend polling stations during the elections. Still, reports indicate that there were problems with both an unusually high number of empty ballot envelopes and, in addition, incorrect handling of preference votes, that is, votes for or against individual candidates.[x]
In contrast to most other European countries, Latvian parties do not yet receive any state funding. Instead, parties are financed by donations. Individual donations are reported on the Web page of the KNAB, the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, which provides a certain transparency. Still, in the 2010 election campaign, allegations of breaches of laws on political campaigning have been voiced. For example, during the election campaign, candidates from Vienotība filed a complaint claiming that a particular TV show should be regarded as covert and thus illegal electoral campaigning for PLL. The accused coalition responded with similar accusations of misuse of public resources, claiming that Vienotība, known for their anti-corruption politics, benefited from the support of the magazine Ir, TV3 and the Latvian chapter of Transparency International.[xi]
Starting from 2012, Latvian parties will be granted financial support from the state, based on their performance in elections. When parties depend on donations and lack stable, long-term support, the actual organizations may live quiet lives in-between elections, which likely leads to less experience of fruitful internal debates and day-to-day cooperation within the parties. Consequently, they may become more prone to splits or disbandment. Quite naturally, this is likely to have an influence the democratic debate and climate in general. With a more stable source of party funding, the Latvian party system may become less volatile and more predictable for the voters.
In a needs assessment report from OSCE[xii], the issue of media outlets and their connections to political interests is pointed out as a serious problem. One case that causes concerns is the selling of Diena, a large newspaper formerly owned by the Swedish Bonniers Business Press. The editor-in-chief allegedly has close connections to the new Šķēle and Šlesers coalition PLL, yet claims that the paper will remain “politically independent”.[xiii]
Participation: Turnout and gender representation
Turnout in Saeima elections in the post-communist independent Latvia has been fluctuating from 72 percent in 1995 to 61 percent in the last elections, with only the 1993 elections reaching a higher 90 percent turnout. Fear of low turnout in the upcoming elections sparked the initiative Ejam Balsot (Let’s go vote), that organized concerts around Latvia to encourage voters to participate in the elections. In addition, the president of Latvia appeared on TV the day before the election, urging voters to participate in the elections.[xiv] With 62.6 percent, the 2010 elections reached a slightly higher level than 2006.
The Latvian electoral system allows a strong form of preference voting, in which voters can express either positive or negative preferences for individual candidates by crossing them out or adding a plus next to their name. This can alter the lists considerably, sometimes resulting in the last person on the list being elected to Saeima.
Women have made up 18 and 19 percent of elected MPs in the 8th and 9th Saeima, comprising 29 and 26 percent of candidates in the 2002 and 2006 elections. In the 2010 elections, the proportion of women candidates again increased slightly, to 28 percent. In the 8th and 9th Saeimas, Jaunais Laiks, one of the parties in Vienotība, had 40 and 55 percent women elected to their parliamentary group, thus being the most gender balanced party in parliament. Since 2002, only the People’s Party (TP) (28 percent women MPs in 2002), has reached anywhere near balanced levels of women’s parliamentary representation. On the contrary, none of the MPs from Saskaņas centrs elected the 2006 elections were women, and only 1 of the 18 ZZS MPs. The three major parties in the 10th Saeima thus have different historical records on this issue, and data from the Central Electoral Commission indicate that the difference is likely to remain: Vienotība lists had 37 percent, Saskaņas centrs 16.5 and ZZS 27 percent women.
At the time of writing, no final results from the preference voting have been published. Given that the voters have not systematically crossed out women candidates however, the 33 Vienotība representatives are likely to be the most gender balanced group of MPs in the 10th Saeima. Likewise, the Saskaņas centrs’ group of MPs could become one of the most male-dominated. The underrepresentation of women in the Saeima indicates that women do not have the same possibilities as men to enter national level politics, which in turn can be seen as one of the indicators of how well democracy fares in independent Latvia.
A coalition of coalitions
The steep drop in the number of organizations competing in the Saeima elections means that Latvian voters face a more narrow party landscape, in terms of numbers. It does however not mean that the political menu has changed considerably since the 2006 elections: there is still a split between the Latvian speaking and Russian speaking parts of the population, and antagonism between the business, the so-called oligarchs’ parties and the organizations that campaign on anti-corruption.
The upcoming government formation will be based on multi-party constellations working with other party unions. Although the serious economic crisis and the will to work across the Latvian-Russian ethnic divide could be stabilizing for the new government coalition, the need to reach compromises both within and between party constellations may put extra pressure on the new government. The 10th Saeima thus has the potential and opportunity to shape a legislative period that benefits from collaboration between and within party constellations, showing that a history of party splits and disagreement can be turned into durable parties and collaborations.
Table: 2010 Saeima elections, preliminary results.
|Saskaņas Centrs (Harmony Centre)||26.04||29|
|Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība (Greens and Farmers Union)||19.68||22|
|Par Labu Latviju (For a good Latvia!)||7.65||8|
|Visu Latvijai! – Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK (All for Latvia! – For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK)||7.67||8|
Source: cvk.lv, accessed Oct 7 2010.
This text draws on interviews with Jānis Ikstens (Latvian University), Iveta Kažoka (Providus), Nils Muižnieks (Latvian University), and Valdis Liepiņš (Latvian Electoral Reform Society.) A special thanks to Péteris Timofejevs-Henriksson for help with the Latvian language.
All electoral data are preliminary data from the Latvian Central Electoral Commission, cvk.lv. Data on women’s representation are from the Latvian Central Electoral Commission, cvk.lv. Articles in Latvian translated via Google translate and interpretation checked for accuracy with a Latvian-speaking political scientist.
[i] Ikstens (2009) “Latvia” European Journal of Political Research 48: 1015–21, p 1018.
[ii] Ikstens (2007) “Latvia” European Journal of Political Research 46: 1012–8, p 1017.
[iii] Muižnieks (2005) “Latvia” in Mudde (ed.) Racist extremism in Central and Eastern Europe. Routledge, New York. Page 107.
[iv] Latvian Centre for Human Rights. (2004, May 22). Integration and Minority Information Service. www.humanrights.org.lv, accessed Oct 8, 2010.
[v] OSCE 2010.
[vi] IMF 2010.
[vii] Hellman, J. S., Jones, G., & Kaufmann, D. (2000). Seize the State, Seize the Day:
An empirical analysis of State Capture and Corruption in Transition. Paper prepared for the ABCDE 2000 Conference. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from www.worldbank.org.
[viii] Ikstens, J. (2006). Latvia. European Journal of Political Research, 45(7-8), 1162-1165.
[ix] “Shady personal finances stain candidate list” The Baltic Times Sept 29, 2010. www.baltictimes.com, accessed Oct 7, 2010.
[x] “Aicina diskutēt par provizorisko rezultātu publiskošanu” Ir Oct 6, 2010. “Jaundžeikars: iespējama apjomīga vēlēšanu rezultātu viltošana” Ir Oct 7 2010. Both www.ir.lv, accessed Oct 6 2010.
[xi] “’Vienotība'’ prasa pārtraukt PLL slēpto aģitāciju” Ir Aug 20, 2010. www.ir.lv, accessed Oct 7 2010.
[xii] OSCE/ODIHR (2010) “Republic of Latvia Parliamentary Elections 2 October 2010. OSCE/ODIHR Need Assessment Mission Report. OSCE, Warsaw. www.osce.org, accessed Aug 9, 2010.
[xiii] “Latvian free press dying off” The Baltic Times July 21, 2010. www.baltictimes.com, accessed Aug 18 2010.
[xiv] “Vēlēšanu priekšvakarā Zatlers uzrunās tautu” Ir Aug 24 2010. www.ir.lv, accessed Oct 6 2010.