On Aug. 29, 2020, Riga held snap municipal elections. The results deeply rocked the political landscape of the Latvian capital.
Harmony, the leading Latvian Russian-speakers party, which has run the city since 2009, lost its top position to the alliance of the social liberal Development/For! party and social-democrat environmentalists, the Progressives.
This article will explain the background of Harmony’s demise and discuss the victory of the Development/For! and Progressives alliance. But before launching into a more in-depth analysis, a brief reminder of the Latvian political system is due. Municipal councils in Latvia are elected in equal, direct, and proportional elections. Before the elections, registered political parties and electoral alliances of two or more parties propose lists of candidates for the elections. Independent non-party candidates can join party lists, but cannot present their own. Citizens do not directly elect the city mayor (elected by the council), but parties announce their candidates for the position before the elections.
On election day, voters choose one of the proposed party lists. In addition, they have the option of promoting or demoting candidates on their party’s list by adding a plus sign next to candidates they most strongly support, or, alternatively, striking a name from a list. If a party wins 10 seats, the top 10 candidates on its list will enter the city council. It is very rare for a single political party to obtain a majority; thus, multi-party governing coalitions are often necessary.
The election resulted in the following breakdown of 60 Riga City Council seats:
Development/For! and Progressives (joint list)
National Alliance and the Regional Party (joint list)
Honor to Serve Riga
Latvia’s Russian Union
New Conservative Party
The Demise of Harmony
The results show rising support for progressive liberalism and fragmentation of the Russian-speaker vote. However, a low participation rate (40.58%) indicates a worrying trend of disengagement from municipal politics, which can be explained by voter fatigue after many months of turmoil in Riga’s City Council. At the same time, it shows a decrease of ethnic political polarization in Riga, as neither ethnic Latvian nor Russian-speaking voters found it necessary to actively mobilize themselves in favor of the so-called Russian or the so-called Latvian parties. It seems that these elections might indeed be the beginning of the end of ethnic voting in Riga. Last, but not the least, four independent grassroots candidates representing activists from various neighborhoods of Riga who ran on the Development/For!-Progressives and New Unity lists were elected in the Riga Council, showing promising signs of civic engagement, despite low election turnout.
Harmony entered Latvian politics in 2010 after the fusion of three smaller parties that had presented a joint list and won 26 seats in Riga’s 2009 elections. While Harmony is a largely Russian speaker-oriented party, there are ethnic Latvians both in its ranks and among its voters. Even more importantly, until now Harmony has been able to hold power in Riga because of its alliance with GKR, an ethnically mixed party that emerged from the ruins of one of Latvia’s disgraced oligarch parties. The joint list of these two parties won 39 of 60 seats in Riga’s 2013 elections, and 32 in 2017.
Success at the municipal level went hand-in-hand with success in national elections, and Harmony made a serious effort to rebrand itself from “Russian party” to a social-democrat party that all Latvian citizens could vote for. On a national level, these efforts failed after Harmony antagonised ethnic Latvian voters with the party’s support for a failed 2012 referendum to make Russian an official language, as well as the party’s failure to rally behind Latvia’s official condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine. On the municipal level, the party was plagued by endless corruption scandals that reached their peak when the anti-corruption police (KNAB) raided the office and home of Harmony’s longtime major, Nils Ušakovs, on Jan. 30, 2019. Three weeks later, Ušakovs suddenly announced that he would run in the 2019 European Parliament elections. In early April, Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional Development Juris Pūce, suspended Ušakovs for the non-fulfilment of statutory obligations and violations of regulatory enactments. In May, Ušakovs was indeed elected in the European parliament, and left the country for Brussels. At the time of his departure, both his party and his coalition had started to unravel as various actors tried to distance themselves from Harmony’s corrupt legacy. Internal conflicts inside Harmony, clashes with their coalition partner GKR, and conflicts between Harmony and opposition forces in the city council led to a paralysis of the council’s work. The drama ended when the national Parliament (Saeima) voted to dismiss the Riga City Council and appointed an interim administration. The Council agreed with these decisions, and aided the Saeima in providing grounds for launching the dismissal procedure by intentionally calling meetings that would not reach a quorum.
The Rise of Social Democrats and Liberals
The joint performance of Development/For! and Progressives in the 2020 Riga elections is the first time since Latvia’s 1991 restoration of independence that socially liberal and left wing forces have obtained an electoral victory. While in the 1990s and early 2000s Latvian political parties functioned more as groups united by the quest for power than ideological distinctions, the ideological crystallisation that gradually took place during the first two decades of the 21th century mostly led parties to adopt center-right or right-wing political stances. From the early 1990s to this day, Latvia has followed a clear neo-liberal trajectory in its economic choices. Harmony has attempted to brand itself as a social democrat party, but its stance on migration, LGBTQ rights, and the environment have varied from indifference to conservative antagonism, while concern regarding social inclusion has been inconsistent and often cosmetic.
Development/For! is a union established in 2018 of three political parties: Movement For!, For Latvia’s Development, and the small regional party Growth. While Movement For! is a new force in Latvian politics — it was established only in 2017 — For Latvia’s Development was founded back in 2013. Movement For! so far has not been linked to any political scandals; meanwhile For Latvia’s Development has been accused of lobbying for the interests of the Latvian gambling industry.
Progressives (founded in 2017) is a social-democrat party that puts a strong emphasis on environmental questions. In 2018, they refused to join Movement For! and For Latvia’s Development, arguing that For Latvia’s Development had historically been part of Latvia’s corrupt political party system. In the subsequent 2018 national elections, the Development/For! alliance obtained 12.04% of the vote and 12 seats out of 100 in the Saeima, while Progressives did not reach the 5% threshold required to enter the parliament.
In 2020, Progressives changed their strategy and joined forces with Development/For! This decision turned out to be beneficial for all involved parties, but especially Progressives. As mentioned above, the joint list obtained 18 seats in August’s RCC election. Due to modifications made by voters, 11 of those seats went to candidates from Progressives and Riga neighborhood activists.
This victory is first and foremost due to an ideological shift in Latvian society. Over the last 20 years, support for an inclusive and open society — defined in the Latvian context as a liberal society — has been gradually rising. Second, generational change and the disastrous effects of the 2009 financial crisis have led to de-stigmatisation of left-wing ideas that in the 1990s were understood merely in the context of the Soviet experiment. Third, as everywhere in Europe, environmental issues have become increasingly important, especially to the younger generation. This trend was mostly felt on the local level as the City Council led by Ušakovs often clashed with local activists calling for a greener and more cyclist-friendly Riga.
Another factor that played into the Development/For! and Progressives joint victory was the two-tiered success of their campaign. On one hand, the general campaign focused on the alliance candidate for the major’s seat, Mārtiņš Staķis. A Movement For! candidate, Staķis is a businessman, Christian, member of the Latvian National Guard and elected member of Saeima; he was an appealing candidate not only for Development/For! and Progressives’ traditional supporters, but also to more conservative voters. On the other hand, individual candidates, especially from Progressives, ran active ground campaigns, often driving support from their activists’ communities and pre-existing networks.
Future of Riga
In the context of general post-election optimism about long-awaited change in the Latvian capital, the low participation rate of 40.58% is a harsh reminder that a significant number of the city’s inhabitants feel disengaged from the city politics. The low participation numbers might be explained by the abstention of disillusioned Russian-speakers. In previous years, Harmony was the leading player in the competition for Russian-speaker votes. To a very large extent, it has been the party of Nils Ušakovs. A former journalist from a Russian-speaking family, fluent in Latvian and married to an ethnic Latvian, he was the face of his party for 10 years. Now that Ušakovs has left for Brussels, his uncharismatic colleagues are struggling to replace him. This election cycle, there was fierce competition for votes between the Latvian Russian Union (a pro-Russia party), GKR (Harmony’s former ally) and New Harmony (another smaller Russian-speaker party). For Russian speakers unwilling to cast a ballot for Harmony, none of the party alternatives were convincing enough to mobilize a large number of voters.
Ironically, this lack of large-scale voter mobilization can also be seen as an indicator of positive processes in Riga. While ethnic Latvians have supported Harmony, both as political allies and voters, and while Russian Latvians have also voted for other parties, in the public perception, Harmony is a “Russian party” and “Russians have ruled Riga” for 10 years. Now that this rule has reached its end, there was no large-scale mobilization driven by ethnic sentiments on either side. More importantly, the alliance that actually managed to take Harmony’s traditional first place in Riga’s elections is a new political force that actively seeks to engage with Russian-speaking voters.
During the electoral campaign, candidates mostly tried to avoid divisive and polarizing language. The most notable exception to this general effort was the radical sector of the right-wing National Alliance, whose members of parliament repeatedly insisted that voting for their party meant voting for the “Riga of Nov. 18” (Latvian Independence Day), voting for Harmony meant voting for the “Riga of May 9” (Soviet WWII Victory Day), and voting for Development/For! and Progressives meant voting for the “Riga of Gay Pride.” These attempts to stigmatize Latvia’s LGBTQ community and their allies as somehow alienated or opposed to the Latvian independence project seemed to be directly inspired by the homophobic narratives of Poland’s recent presidential election campaign. But this divisive discourse was unsuccessful in Riga and unpopular in the ranks of the National Alliance itself — even its own candidate for the mayor’s seat seemed to be unwilling to participate in its propagation.
Less than two weeks after the elections, a large four-member ruling coalition led by Mārtiņš Satķis was formed. It replicates to a considerable extent the existing coalition that forms the national government: Development/For! and Progressives have been joined by New Unity, National Alliance and Regional Party, and the New Conservative Party.
The advantages and disadvantages of Latvia’s broad multi-party coalitions, which often unite political forces from different political spectrums, have been discussed before. The main issue in the current situation in Riga is that the coalition does not include any of the political parties that are perceived as Russian-speaker parties. But doing so itself would have been very challenging: In Latvia’s political context, Harmony is not merely a Russian speakers’ party; it is a party that still represents post-Soviet kleptocratic traditions, which in the past were practiced by political forces with close links to Latvian oligarchs. Still, this election is cause for hope that in the coming years Riga, and Latvia in general, will move away from ethnic division in politics, rallying voters around ideas — instead of ethnic identities.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.