Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Latvia: Slow Progress for Women in 100 Years of Latvian Suffrage
Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Latvia: Slow Progress for Women in 100 Years of Latvian Suffrage

Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Latvia: Slow Progress for Women in 100 Years of Latvian Suffrage

This year marks the centenary for women’s suffrage in Latvia, but this milestone is not included in most celebrations of the 100 years of Latvian independence. Women make up 54% of Latvia’s population, but only 18% of current parliament members. This percentage does not look to increase significantly any time soon. After 100 years of suffrage, women represent only 31% of candidates on political party lists for the upcoming elections, a decrease from the 33% representation on party lists in 2014. Even though there are 464 female candidates running, of a total 1461 candidates, this does not always translate into parliamentary seats for women. While other countries are lauding 2018 as the year of women, the impending election on October 6 will be more of the status quo for women in Latvian politics.

Latvia ranks 126 out of 193 countries around the world for the percentage of women in parliament while also ranking 20 out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report. Latvia ranks high on these gender equality indices because it has had both a female president and prime minister. But this does not mean that women are equally represented in parliament. There has been some fluctuation with women’s representation since independence, with the figure as low as 8% in 1995 and as high as 21% women in 2002 and 2011. Despite this fluctuation, Latvia still ranks lower on women’s representation than Estonia at 26% and Lithuania at 21%.  

The research on gender and politics demonstrates that legislated gender quotas with closed list proportional representation systems are the most effective system for increasing women in politics. Latvia does not have any gender quotas—although Unity, a center-right party, did propose almost 40% female candidates on its party lists in previous elections, likely in a bid to win more female votes. Latvia also has a proportional representation system where seats are given to political parties in proportion to the number of votes they receive, with open lists which means that voters can rank order candidates up and down a party list. This system could be detrimental for women, as voters are more likely to move female candidates down party lists.

Women in Latvian Parliaments

Although women in Latvia have been voting and participating in politics since 1918, the number of female legislators on the national level is small. Graph 1 shows women’s representation trends over time in the Latvian Saeima. The first through third Saeimas (1922-1931) contained no women. The first female Member of Parliament, Berta Pīpiņa, was elected in 1931 during the fourth Saeima. Since 1998, the number of women in parliament has remained stagnate. Many critics argue that women are not interested in politics, but survey data suggests that women’s voter turnout is consistently above men’s in Latvia. In the 2014 election, 77% of female respondents said they voted, compared to only 70% of men.

Women on Latvian Political Party Lists

Given the lack of women’s representation in previous parliaments, is Latvia likely to see major changes in the 13th Saeima? Table 1 shows the breakdown of women on party lists by political party. Two leftist political parties with very different political positions, The Progressives and Latvian Russian Union, are tied for the most women on their lists with 42.2% female candidates.  The parties with the lowest percentage of female candidates are the leftist party For an Alternative with 20% women and the center-right Greens and Farmers Union with 21%.

Overall, only three political parties show an increase in female candidates on party lists from 2014 to 2018. By contrast, six parties have decreased the number of female candidates. Seven political parties did not run in 2014, so there is no comparison between elections. Women are more likely to run in left-leaning political parties, but I found no consistent ideological differences for women’s representation in Latvian political parties.

Women’s Placement on Party Lists

Despite the number of female candidates, this does not always mean seats for women because a lot depends on women’s placement on the party lists. To get more women into the legislature, women need to be placed at the top of parliamentary lists, not relegated to the bottom. Women are on the first position on 20 of the 80 parliamentary lists across political parties for the 13th Saeima. The Progressives is the only party to place a woman first on every candidate list for all five constituencies (Riga, Kurzeme, Zemgale, Latgale, and Vidzeme). The far-right Latvian Association of Regions has three lists with a female candidate first, including in Latgale, Kurzeme, and Zemgale. Additionally, the Latvian Russian Union has women as the first six candidates on its list in Kurzeme. Three parties, the Latvia’s Centrist Party, the far-right Latvian Nationalists, and leftist For an Alternative, did not place a single woman first on any of their party lists. No political party took a “zipper approach,” alternating between females and males on candidate lists to ensure gender equality.

In Riga, the largest constituency in Latvia with 35 seats, there are 27 women in the top five places on the list from all 16 political parties. In Kurzeme, the constituency with the fewest seats (12), there are 24 women in the top five from all 16 political parties. This demonstrates that Latvian parties are more likely to run women in the top five places in constituencies with fewer seats even though the literature suggests that women do best in districts with more seats. There is no evidence to suggest that women are clustered at the end of the party lists. One hundred thirteen of the 464 female candidates are placed in the top five places, while 100 are in the last five places, leaving the majority of female candidates somewhere in the middle.

This analysis of women in Latvian parliaments suggests that the 13th Saeima elections are not likely to turn into a surge of women members of parliament. Without significant changes to the rank order of female candidates up political party lists, we are likely to see a continuation of the status quo, with similar levels of women’s representation and only small cracks in the glass ceiling of Latvian politics.