Voting in Latvia's election.

Election The 2011 extraordinary parliamentary elections in Latvia

When the preliminary electoral results came in the evening of 17 September, two things were rather clear. First, the Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs, SC) seems to be the winner of the extraordinary parliamentary elections in Latvia. Second, the so-called oligarch parties have suffered a humiliating defeat.

Published on on September 20, 2011

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When the preliminary electoral results (see table 1) came in the evening of 17 September, two things were rather clear. First, the Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs, SC) seems to be the winner of the extraordinary parliamentary elections in Latvia. Second, the so-called oligarch parties have suffered a humiliating defeat.

Who is the “real” winner?

On the first sight, it might appear that the winner is SC. The party, which is primarily known for its Russophone electorate, and advocacy of state intervention in the matters of economy, got 26% of the votes in the elections last year. Therefore, it would be probably too early to call them the winner of the elections, as their support increased only by approximately 2%.

Moreover, it seems that the support for SC have increased only marginally – by approximately 8523 votes since the election in 2010. The most likely explanation is the low turnout. As the editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine “Ir” Nellija Ločemele wrote in her comment: “For the extra – it seems that two – seats in Saeima, SC can thank those lazy Latvians that stayed at home and did not go to vote.”[1] Still, the party has won the largest portion of the votes (28.43%) in the elections. It seems also that SC might have gained some votes from other “Russian parties”, because the support to the more radical “Russian party” For the Human Rights in United Latvia (Par cilvēktiesībām vienotā Latvijā, PCTVL) has decreased since 2010

Already after the elections, the coalition-building negotiations have been launched. SC has made it clear that the party would like that the electorate decides over the joining to the Eurozone. This might be a problem in co-operating with the Latvian centre-to-right parties. The Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis from Unity (Vienotība, V) has often mentioned joining to the Eurozone as one of the main economic goals. Also Zatlers Reform Party (Zatlera Reformu partija, ZRP) might find it difficult to accept the idea of referendum on euro.  

Two other parties surprised, however. First, the radical nationalist party All for Latvia! – For Fatherland and Freedom/ LNNK (Visu Latvijai – Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK, VL-TB/LNNK) almost doubled its support from 7.6% in 2010 to 13.86% in 2011. This party with its anti-establishment stance and radical nationalist rhetoric has had a meteoritic rise in the Latvian politics.

Second surprise was ZRP, founded by the former President of State Valdis Zatlers. It got around 20.8% which seem to guarantee it a core position among the so-called Latvian parties in the coalition-building process. As this party was established less than two months ago, it is a remarkable achievement and therefore it is worth to discuss the roots of this success.

 Table 1 – Support to the parliamentary parties, 2010-2011

Party Election results 2010[2] Opinion poll, August 2011[3] Opinion poll, September 2011[4] Preliminary election results 2011[5] Seats in Saeima (2011)[6]
Unity (Vienotība) 31.2% 9.4% 15.1%  18.81% 20
Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs) 26.0% 18.8% 21.2% 28.43% 31
Zatlers Reform Party (Zatlera Reformu partija) 14.4% 15.3% 20.80% 22
Greens and Farmers Union (Zaļo un zemnieku savienība) 19.6% 8.6% 9.6% 12.19% 13
All for Latvia! – For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (Visu Latvijai – Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK) 7.6% 6.3% 6.6% 13.86% 14
Šlesers Reform Party (Šlesera Reformu partija), former For Good Latvia (Par labu Latvijai) 7.6% 2% 2.9% 2.41% 0
The voter turnout 63.12%     60.55%[7]  


Zatlers effect?

Zatlers called for a referendum for dissolution of Saeima, the Latvian Parliament, on 28 May. As one of the reasons for taking this unprecedented step in Latvian political history, he cited the detrimental effects of the rule of oligarchs in Latvian politics. Later, he identified Ainārs Šlesers, Andris Šķēle and Aivars Lembergs as the oligarchs. In Latvian political jargon, these politicians are known as the “triple-A”, as their names begins with A and they, allegedly, exert an overwhelmingly strong politico-economic influence in the country. While Šlesers and Šķēle led the party For Good Latvia (Par Labu Latviju, PLL) at that time, Lembergs was associated with the Greens and Farmers Union (Zaļo un zemnieku savienība, ZZS).

The then coalition government, consisting of two centre-to-right parties – Unity (Vienotība, V) and ZZS – was often incapable of agreeing about a common policy, as ZZS often played the role of veto player blocking the anti-corruption initiatives, as well as the economic policy decisions, proposed by V. On 26 May, Saeima failed to approve the search of the home of Šlesers, a step proposed by the country’s anti-corruption body, KNAB.

At the same time, Zatlers campaigned for the re-election as the President of State which, according to the Constitution, is elected by Saeima. After Zatlers had called for the referendum on dissolution of Saeima, his re-election prospects were called in question by the very same parties that represented the oligarch influence. Zatlers’ worst fears materialized, because, instead of Zatlers, a former banker Andris Bērziņš was elected as the President of State. The Latvian Constitution provides that Saeima is dissolved only if the electorate supports the President’s decision in the referendum. On 23 July, 94.3% of the voters supported Zatlers’ motion to dissolve Saeima in a popular referendum. On the same day, Zatlers established his own party with a centre-right, or self-proclaimed Centrist, political orientation – Zatlers Reform Party.

Although ZRP had a very short time to prepare for the elections, Zatlers succeeded in forming a team of young, educated professionals. Among them, the Latvian economist Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis, previously, has been active in the public discussion on the economic crisis in Latvia. After reviewing economic policy proposals of all the political parties, “Economist Association 2010” (“Ekonomistu apvienība 2010”) rated the economic program by ZRP highest by granting 77 points out of 100; the worst rated economic programs were those of SC and ZZS (50.4 and 45)[8].

The Latvian politics can be usually summarized as being about either the ethnic issues, or personalities. Voting along the socio-economic lines (right-left) usually does not play an important role. While the so-called “Russian parties” (e.g. SC), usually, are associated with the slightly more leftist position in the economic policy issues, the so-called Latvian parties, usually, are associated with more fiscally conservative economic policies. This means that the voting usually divides along the ethnic lines and the economic issues does not have the same political saliency as, for instance, in the Western European countries. It seems, however, that these elections were rather moderate in respect of the ethnic rhetoric. In terms of economic policy, ZRP, V and VL-TB/LNNK are more centre-to-right in their economic policies, advocating more or less strict fiscal discipline in combination with improvement of the business environment. ZZS and SC, on the other, hand proposed an increase in state expenditures as a way out of the economic crisis which has had detrimental effects on Latvia since 2008. The political discussion on the economic matters seemed to be more constructive this year, at least, partly due to the fact that ZRP had worked out a serious economic program.

Despite these differences in the economic policies, the elections can be described as a vote of confidence on the state of the Latvian politics. ZRP run on a strong anti-oligarch and anti-corruption platform which per se is nothing new. In 2002, the party “New Era”, successfully, ran on an anti-corruption platform. “Zatlers effect”, however, is about mobilizing the public opinion against the oligarchs, mentioning them by their names and criticizing their strong influence in the Latvian politics, thus also attracting the disappointed voters of V. It also created the impression that ZRP consists of like-minded professionals who can work in team, as the Latvian policy analyst Iveta Kažoka noted[9]. In the electoral campaign, Zatlers posed as an ordinary person who just could not stand anymore the rotten state of the politics in Latvia. This yielded some results – ZZS has lost its importance, while Šlesers and his Šlesers Reform Party were not even elected in Saeima.

The coalition building can be tough

ZRP and V have indicated that they would like to build the coalition together. However, the parties have not received enough votes to claim the majority of 51 places in Saeima. None of the two wants to co-operate with ZZS which is associated with Lembergs, the most notorious of the Latvian oligarch trio. Most probably, they will form the core force in the coalition building. If this turns out to be true, it seems that there are, at least, two scenarios of coalition-building in Latvia now.

The first scenario revolves around building the coalition among three so-called Latvian parties – ZRP, V, and VL-TB/LNNK. At the moment, it seems that they might be in control of just slightly more than the required 51 seats in Saeima. It seems also the most probable scenario, because to exclude SC, or others the so-called Russian parties, has been one of the Latvian political traditions so far. Moreover, these parties stand rather near each other in terms of the economic policy.

However, the co-operation with the radical nationalist VL-TB/LNNK might still be a “hot potato” for a lot of politicians within V. Last year, the former foreign minister Artis Pabriks was concerned about the probability that V would co-operate with politicians who had openly expressed “anti-semitic, homophobic, and even racist ideas”[10]. V and ZRP might opt to form a minority government drawing the parliamentary support from VL-TB/LNNK.

The second scenario implies that ZRP and V form a grand coalition with SC, thus having a comfortable majority of 71 seats in Saeima. On the one hand, such a coalition is required if ZRP is serious about amending the Constitution to allow the President of State be elected by the people and not by Saeima, as it is the case now. It could also be perceived as a logical continuation of changing the political landscape which, so far, has been tainted by the ethnic divisions between the Latvian and Russophone communities.

On the other hand, it might be a political impossibility, as V is divided on this issue. Some members of V have voiced strong opposition to such a co-operation. The economic program of SC also poses challenges for a successful co-operation. While ZRP and V would not have considerable difficulties to hammer out a common economic position on most of the issues, SC seems to support a stronger state intervention in the economy, and particularly prioritizing the social policy area, and the postponement of joining the Eurozone. This might potentially be a major source of coalitional instability.

The SC politicians, probably, are aware of these problems. Perhaps, therefore SC has lately downplayed the role of ethnic issues. One of its leaders Nils Ušakovs, who also is the Mayor of Riga, even, uttered a vague statement which can be interpreted as the recognition of the fact of the Soviet occupation. Exactly, a clear statement on this issue is seen as one of pre-conditions for coalitional negotiations by the more nationalist members of V.


  1. Ločmele, Nellija (2011) „Kliķes gals un SC sākums?” [The end of the clique and the beginning of SC?], Website of the weekly magazine „IR”,, accessed 19 September 2011.
  2. “10. Saeimas vēlēšanas” [Elections of the 10th Saeima], Website of the Central Electoral Committee,, accessed 17 September 2011.
  3.  The opinion poll on support to the main political parties was conducted by the polling company “SKDS”, 12-27 August 2011. See – “SKDS pētījums: augustā nedaudz krities SC un ZRP, bet pieaudzis – ‘Vienotības’ un ZZS reitings.” [Study by SKDS: In august, the rating of SC and ZRP has slightly decreased, but the rating of ‘ Vienotība’ and ZZS has increased], Website of the news portal Delfi,, accessed on 17 September 2011.
  4.  The opinion poll on support to the main political parties was conducted by the polling company “Latvijas fakti”, 10-15 September 2011. See – “Aptauja: Divkārt sarucis neizlēmušo skaits; ZRP un Vienotībai – vienāds reitings” [Opinion poll: The number of undecided voters deacread by double; the same rating to ZRP and Unity], Website of the news portal Delfi,, accessed 17 September 2011.
  5. “Faktu lapa. 11. Saeimas vēlēšanu provizoriskie rezultāti” [Fact sheet. The preliminary results of the elections of the 11th Saeima], Website of the Central Electoral Committee,, accessed 18 September 2011.
  6. Op.cit.
  7. “11. Saeimas vēlēšanas. Balsotāju aktivitāte” [Elections of the 11th Saeima. The voter activity.], Website of the Central Electoral Committee,, accessed on 18 September 2011.
  8. ”Labākās partiju programmas – Zatlera Reformu partijai un Vienotībai” [The best party programs – those of Zatlers Reform Party and Unity], Website of the ”Economist Association 2010”,, last accessed on 18 September 2011.
  9. Kažoka, Iveta (2011) “Revolucionārā iespēja un mērķis: īstenoti” [The revolutionary opportunity and goal: achieved”, Website of the public policy portal,, accessed 19 September 2011.
  10. “Pabriks: Koalīcijā nav vajadzīgi ultranacionālisti un radikāļi” [Pabriks: There is no need for ultr-nationalists and radicals in the coalition], Website of the new portal TVNET,, accessed on 18 September 2011.
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