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Latvian Elections: Visions of a Fractured Saeima

Latvian Elections: Visions of a Fractured Saeima

Explore our guide to Latvian Parliamentary Party Platforms

The 19 parties campaigning in the October 1 Latvian Saeima (parliament) elections are fated to experience interesting times. The vote occurs amidst lingering COVID-19 pandemic worries and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Struggling to address economic difficulties and public distrust, no party can definitively claim a popular mandate for change. This article will provide a few broad predictions for what to expect in the election results — based on surveys and pre-existing policy. Growing anti-Riga sentiment and decline in the previous election’s big winners — pro-Russophone and populist parties — vote share portend a fractious coalition government similar to the current administration.

The clearest trend in Latvian politics today is that the Latvian capital, Riga, reaps the lion’s share of benefits from the country’s economic progress. As the country’s biggest city (by far with almost 625,000 inhabitants or one-third of the total population), economic hub, and a major port, Riga attracts attention from government and outside investors. Eighty-five percent of foreign investment occurs in Riga or the surrounding municipalities. An overarching result of the focus on Riga is regionalised socioeconomic stratification. According to the OECD, “Latvia remains the country with the fifth starkest regional economic disparities among 29 OECD countries with comparable data.” The statistical disparity is striking: according to the Central Statistical Bureau, where 8.6% of working-age residents in Daugavpils, Latvia’s second-largest city (population around 80,000), were unemployed, only 4.2% of registered Rigans lacked jobs. Thirty-nine percent of Rigans have higher education, while only 26% of residents in Liepaja, the country’s biggest port, and 28% in the eastern cities of Daugavpils and Rezekne held equivalent qualifications.     

These divides led to a rise in regionalism and demands for decentralizing authority to draw power away from Riga. In the 2021 local elections, the Latvian Association of Regions, a localist-populist party, came first in five municipalities, tied for first with the agrarian Greens and Farmers Union (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība) and the liberal For Latvia’s Development Party (Latvijas attīstībai). Other regionalist parties gained the most seats in five other municipalities. The Latvian Association of Regions (Latvijas Reģionu apvienība) formed an alliance on July 1 with the ecologist Latvian Green Party (Latvijas Zaļā partija), localist Liepaja Party (Liepājas partija), and catch-all “United List of Latvia” (Apvienotais Latvijas saraksts) led by businessman Uldas Pīlēns. This alliance — the United List (Apvienotais saraksts) — polled at 9.2% in September 2022, third place behind the ruling centre-right New Unity Party (Jaunā Vienotība) and right-wing coalition member National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība). Importantly, none of the Riga-centric parties, notably Honor to Serve Riga (Gods kalpot Rīgai), campaigned on a national level or joined larger regionalist alliances. Parties popular in Riga, such as the center-left Progressives (Progresīvie), have national followings, indicative of the capital’s sizeable influence on national life. Other parties have also adopted regionalist themes. That five parties, including four governing ones, included promotion of the regional Latgalian language in their campaign promises suggests local identity and issues remain a major driver in Latvian politics.

In contrast to the seemingly-optimistic localists, Latvia’s traditionally strong Russophilic Social Democratic Party “Harmony” (Saskaņa) sees an election season of setbacks. Since its leader, former Riga Mayor Nils Ušakovs, was sacked in April 2019 over bribery for a transit contract, the party suffered electoral reversals. That November, surrendering a key remaining lever on municipal power, Harmony withdrew support from Oļegs Burovs, Honor to Serve Riga member and Ušakovs’ former deputy and successor as mayor. By June 2020, For Latvia’s Development displaced Harmony as Riga’s most popular party in election polling. In August 2020, Harmony lost power in Riga to a coalition headed by the liberal For Latvia’s Development Party and its technocratic leader Martins Staķis. In his interviews, Staķis stressed cooperation with Riga’s Russophone community, drawing away Harmony’s major support base. In municipal elections that year, Harmony barely campaigned outside eastern Latvia, retaining power only in Daugavpils and Rēzekne. The party, which earned the most seats in 2011, 2014, and 2018, is polling at 9% as of Sept. 6, 2022 — a distant fourth place.  

A more explicitly Russophilic, controversial party — the Latvian Russian Union (Latvijas Krievu savienība) — seeks to take Harmony’s place in the political spectrum, but has so far failed to garner the cross-cultural appeal Harmony’s patronage politics generated. The Latvian Russian Union worked with Harmony’s predecessor in the For Human Rights in United Latvia alliance (Par cilvēka tiesībām vienotā Latvijā), but split over Harmony’s perceived concessions to the ethnic Latvian majority. The Latvian Russian Union continues openly airing Moscow-friendly views — it formed a partnership with the Crimean regionalist party whose leader became governor following Russian occupation in 2014. Its 2022 election manifesto calls for “ending the limitations on Russian-language [in this case, Moscow-funded] television, and creating a fully-Russophone Latvian TV channel.” It supports “depoliticization” of various government agencies, claiming anti-Russophone bias. By contrast, Harmony broke official ties with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in 2017 and its 2022 manifesto emphasizes “integrating society” and Europeanism. Despite garnering attention for its controversies, the Latvian Russian Union remains small. It crossed the 5% electoral threshold in the 2021 municipal vote, only to earn one seat in the Daugavpils City Assembly. This year, polling from Sept. 20 predicted the party would earn 4.8% of the vote, below the electoral threshold. In the event the Latvian Russian Union enters the Saeima, it is unlikely to join a coalition; candidate Miroslav Mitrofanov declared, “In the short term, this is an unrealistic question. Therefore, questions regarding coalitions are non-starters.” 

Like the Russian-interest parties, Latvia’s populist movements appear unable to consolidate and break through the electoral barrier. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, the populist Who Owns the State? Party (Kam pieder valsts?) came second after Harmony. Soon after, its membership decreased as party leader Aldis Gobzems’ parliamentary performance, debates over participating in the governing coalition, and vaccine mandate disagreements split the party. By August 2021, floor-crossing left the party with only five deputies, the minimum required to maintain official party status. As Who Owns the State? lost control, competitors for the anti-system vote appeared. Businessman Ainārs Šlesers co-founded the Latvia First party (Latvija pirmā vietā), taking explicit inspiration from populist parties in the United States and continental Europe. Gobzems eventually left Who Owns the State?, joining with former Harmony MP Jūlija Stepaņenko to form the Law and Order party (Likums un kārtība). Stepaņenko left to form her own Sovereign Power (Suverēnā vara) movement, appealing to Latvia’s Russophone minority. A Riga-based populist party, For Stability! (Stabilitātei!), earned approximately 6% in polls throughout 2022, but the September 2022 results place it below the electoral threshold. Thus far, only Latvia First appears able to win parliamentary representation. Most of the populist parties arose after the 2021 local elections, leaving them untested and unfamiliar to the public.  

As political parties become smaller and increasingly unable to attract a national electorate, their struggles feed parliamentary instability. Big national parties like Harmony weaken, while narrower movements, based around regional identity like the Latvian Association of Regions or social groups like the Latvian Russian Union, rise. In 2018, political scientist Ryo Nakai opined, “Latvian electoral politics are among the most unstable, volatile and fragmented in Europe.” He added that the ratio of parties to available seats was 6.4, the second-highest in Latvian history, surpassed only by the 1995 election’s 7.6 ratio. Given 19 parties registered on the candidate lists, the party-to-seat ratio will remain high this election cycle. Of the registered parties, seven currently poll above the electoral threshold, making a multiparty coalition almost inevitable. Seven parties polling at least 5% mean no single party can form a government alone. Assuming seven parties enter parliament as in the previous election, the party-to-seat proportion would at least match 2018’s 6.4 ratio. A fractured Saeima and the need for coalition politics could extend the government formation process, leaving the country in an uncertain position while the economy flounders and war continues nearby. The longest Latvia had to wait for a government to form was four months, after the 2018 elections. However, under the leadership of Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš of New Unity, (which entered parliament with the fewest number of seats in 2018), it has been the longest-lasting government (though not without reorganizations). If more parties pass the threshold and regional-political differences hamper alliance formation, the government may take longer to form. A Latvian saying holds, “The big fish swallows the small one.” Folk wisdom may be turned around again if the smaller parties dictate the next Latvian government’s composition.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author 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.

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