Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Latvia’s Elections: The View From Afar   
Latvia’s Elections: The View From Afar   

Latvia’s Elections: The View From Afar   

After the votes were tallied in Latvia’s October 6 parliamentary election, foreign news media headlines exclaimed that pro-Russia party Harmony dominated the 13th Saeima (parliament) elections. But this result was hardly surprising. Harmony’s first place finish is par for the course in Latvian elections, in no small part because it has been the only major party to cater to Latvia’s significant Russian-speaking population. Still, it has never been included in the governing coalition, and prominent political scientists don’t expect that to change now either. Not exactly a big “win” for pro-Russia sentiments.

But the election was no success for other establishment parties either. Even despite significant economic growth, all the parties elected to the 100-member Saeima in 2014 lost seats in this election, making room for newer parties on both sides of the political spectrum.

Populist party Who Owns the State (KPV) was a comparative big winner. The surge in support for its anti-establishment platform—a growing phenomenon across the West—demonstrated Latvians’ frustration with the status quo. Led by actor Artuss Kaimiņš, the party rose in Trumpian style, bashing the media and railing against establishment forces in the government. The New Conservative Party also had a strong showing.

While news coverage in the United States and the United Kingdom failed to capture the necessary nuance of parliamentary elections, these are countries where Latvia has prominent diaspora populations. The diaspora turnout provides an interesting foil to the territorial vote. More than 130,000 eligible voters live outside of Latvia—roughly equal to eight seats in the Saeima. Compared to 2014, turnout in Latvia dropped by nearly 5 percentage points (to 54.6%, the lowest since regaining independence in 1991); in the diaspora, the drop was 2%, leaving a 24% turnout rate. However, the number of eligible voters in the diaspora increased by 50%, and nearly 9,000 more votes were cast in the diaspora in 2018 than 2014. (This is partially due to the liberalization of Latvian citizenship laws, which allowed for easier access to dual citizenship starting in 2013.)

Diaspora voters matter. KPV’s Kaimiņš made a concerted effort to attract “new” Latvian working class emigrants, who have recently left the country primarily for economic reasons. As Aija Lulle describes, this paid off—KPV won soundly among voters in the UK, where around 70,000 Latvians live. KPV won a strong plurality of diaspora votes (35%) overall, but Latvian voters abroad are far from homogeneous.

The situation is far different in the United States. There are 15,000 eligible voters living in the U.S., but only 2,394 eligible ballots were cast in these elections—a mere 15%. The process is complex—voters must choose one of the 16 party lists, and can vote in favor or against specific candidates. They must also have valid passports stamped at a polling place. Voting by mail requires sending away one’s passport before receiving voter materials. For U.S.-Latvian voters more familiar with American elections, the process and the complexity of the parliamentary system is a barrier to turnout.

Still, the American Latvian Association, World Federation of Free Latvians, and the Latvian embassy in the U.S. made concerted efforts to get out the vote. Working with local Latvian organizations, ALA hosted election debates in Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago, inviting all 16 parties on the ballot. Six parties sent representatives (New Conservative Party, National Alliance, The Progressives, For Development, Latvian Nationalists, and New Unity). Four of these parties garnered the majority of the U.S. vote.   

Five of the 16 parties running in these elections crossed a 5% threshold in the U.S.—unlike in the UK, KPV was last among them, garnering only 7.7% of the total U.S. vote. Pro-Russia parties Harmony and Latvia’s Russian Union are a negligible factor in U.S.-Latvian politics; both parties combined had only 52 total votes, just above 2% of U.S.-based voters. The Diaspora-oriented paper Laiks did not even bother to include clear front-runner Harmony in its September evaluation of party platforms. 

This is due to the strong presence of World War II-era refugees and their descendants (the “old” diaspora), who remain bastions of Latvian cultural and political life in the U.S. “Old” voters have been arguably more concerned about issues relating to national identity and security, than economics or anti-establishment sentiment.

The four parties with the strongest support from U.S.-Latvian voters are also the four most solidly expected to form the governing coalition, despite encompassing both ostensibly liberal (New Unity, For Development) and conservative (National Alliance, New Conservative Party) ideologies. (New Unity—a reiteration of the old Unity party—trends socially liberal, though fiscally center-right.) Traditional “pro-Latvia” parties (New) Unity and National Alliance have been favored in the past by U.S. voters, winning 53% and 35% of the U.S. vote in 2014, respectively. In the 2018 elections, National Alliance—a hard-right party that has often appealed to the strong pro-Latvia sentiment among WWII diaspora Latvians—fell considerably, likely giving up votes to the New Conservative Party and KPV. New Unity also gave way to the younger and more progressive For Development. The Union of Greens and Farmers—a mainstay in the Latvian parliament—made barely a blip in the U.S. polls. This could indicate that American Latvian voters are moving beyond a binary “national” question and becoming more in tune to social and economic issues as they develop their engagement with Latvian politics.

Latvians in the U.S. make up 11% of eligible diaspora voters, less than 8% of the total diaspora vote, and a mere 0.2% of the actual votes in this election. As more and more Latvians resettle in other European Union countries and political focus from Riga shifts beyond the World War II diaspora, we must start to ask: do U.S.-Latvians still matter?

The short answer is yes. Diaspora voter turnout aside, the number of ballots cast in the U.S. increased by nearly 200. Polling places in the U.S. also increased from 15 to 21 between the 2014 and 2018 elections, a reflection of the government’s push to increase outreach to the diaspora. U.S.-Latvians also remain an important lobbying force, both within Latvia and in Latvia’s most strategic ally—the U.S. Particularly in the current American political climate, the strength of the Baltic lobbying force in Congress matters.

Emigre Latvians in the U.S. played a crucial role in the maintenance of Latvian sovereignty during the Cold War, too. Intelligentsia pushed for U.S. non-recognition of Soviet annexation, first- and second-generation Latvian Americans actively protested Soviet rule, and U.S.-Latvians lobbied for American support through means such as free press radio broadcasts. In the immediate post-Soviet period, some Latvians who had sought refuge in the U.S. during occupation returned to the newly independent country as politicians and academics, and helped chart Latvia’s regeneration as a Western-oriented state.

One American-Latvian with dual citizenship will now sit in the 13th Saeima representing For Development—Vita Anna Tērauda. (A Canadian Latvian will sit in the Saeima for KPV/LV as the only other member with dual citizenship.) Tērauda is also one of the 31 women that will form part of 100-member Saeima. Latvia’s parliament will exceed the EU average of women in government (29.7%), and beats the U.S. Congress (19%) by more than 10 percentage points. The desire for fresh perspectives is reflected not only in votes for newer parties and more female representation, but also in a slight drop in the average age of the parliament (47.3). Though The Progressives party did not garner any seats in this election, they did surpass the 2% needed to gain government funding. As Una Bergmane points out, this is a real step toward the development of a true social democratic party in Latvia—and another indication of change.

With the election over, focus shifts to coalition building. How stable a government that intends to bring conservatives and liberals into one ruling bloc remains to be seen—and skepticism is not unwarranted. But despite diversity on the political spectrum, two things remain important. First, in this election, Latvians reaffirmed their pro-Europe, pro-NATO stance, and the country will continue on a path that faces westward. Second, continuity on this path does not necessarily mean more of the same. The real story is in the country’s slow shift towards new voices and new ideas—both at home and abroad.