On May 31, 2023, the parliament of Latvia will attempt to elect Latvia’s next president. The presidential race that has just started has already had some rather dramatic twists and turns.
First there were two candidates: The right-wing nationalist party National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība) backed the sitting president, Egils Levits, while the United List (Apvienotais saraksts), an alliance of regional parties, put forward the name of their leader, businessman Uldis Pīlēns. However, on May 10, Levits withdrew from the race, arguing that a de facto coalition between oligarchs and pro-Kremlin forces had emerged in support of his rival. Why the president would prefer to quit rather than fight this alleged coalition remained unclear.
On May 11, the social-democratic opposition party Progressives (Progresīvie) announced that their candidate for the presidency would be Elīna Pinto, a diaspora activist and international policy professional. On the same day, center-right New Unity (Jaunā Vienotība), the party of Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, nominated Latvia’s long-time Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs.
While the head of state often fulfills a rather symbolic role in Latvia’s political system, the example of President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga (in office 1999-2007) shows that a dynamic and charismatic president can play an active role not only in Latvia’s foreign policy, but also in domestic politics. Indeed, the political intrigues surrounding the race risk destabilizing the current government.
This article looks at the role that the president has in the Latvian political system, the outcomes of Levits’ tenure, the background of the current three candidates, and the possible outcomes of these elections.
The role of the president in the Latvian political system
The Latvian constitution of 1922 stipulates that Latvia is a parliamentary republic, in which the prime minister holds the main executive power, while the president is mostly focused on representing Latvia internationally. At the same time, the president is far from powerless in domestic affairs. According to the constitution, they can initiate legislation, convene extraordinary meetings of the government, propose a dissolution of the parliament to a national referendum, invite a potential prime minister to form the government, proclaim laws adopted by the parliament or require their reconsideration, suspend a newly adopted legislation, and put it for a vote in a national referendum. Thus, the impact that the president has on Latvian politics depends on the president’s ambition and personality. Some, like Vīķe-Freiberga and Valdis Zatlers (2007-2011), make active use of the roles outlined in the constitution and the moral authority of the office to weigh in on domestic dynamics. Others, like Andris Bērziņš (2011-2015) or Raimonds Vējonis (2015-2019), have limited their activities to representative and symbolic functions.
At the same time, it is hard for ambitious and talented leaders to access the highest office in the land: The election of the president is in the hands of legislators, who often tend to look for compromise figures who won’t stir up political processes too much. A successful candidate must gather at least 51 votes out of 100. If that does not happen during the first two rounds of voting, the contender with the smallest number of votes drops out in each consecutive round. If none of the candidates obtain the required number of votes, new elections with new candidates are held in about two weeks’ time.
The presidency of Egils Levits
When Egils Levits was elected the ninth president of Latvia in 2019, it seemed that something unusual had happened. The former judge at the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice did not seem to be a compromise figure, but an ambitious leader with strong intellectual potential. His election was greeted with enthusiasm by national-conservative circles and the larger public. While the former looked forward to his contribution to strengthening the core-nation status of Latvians in Latvia, the latter hoped that Levits would forge a more active presidency than his predecessors Bērziņš and Vējonis. However, as Levits’ tenure approaches its end, the president’s approval ratings are the lowest since the restoration of independence: 64% of respondents hold negative views of his presidency. On one hand, these ratings have to be seen in the context of a general decrease in trust in public institutions. On the other hand, Levits’ presidency did not meet the high hopes that were pinned upon it.
During his tenure, the president, as promised, focused on identity-related questions, such as strengthening the “unique cultural and historical environment” of Latvia’s historical regions and the Latvian language. Levits also initiated a reform in the funding of political parties. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he became a strong advocate of Kyiv internationally, and called for the establishment of an international criminal court for Russia. Yet, many have perceived Levits as disconnected from the everyday realities of Latvian society. Indeed, while the country was facing the COVID-19 pandemic, the president remained focused on national heritage related issues and failed to take an active role in crisis communication. The president has also tried to abstain from Latvia’s ongoing constitutional crisis: Since 2020, the Latvian parliament has ignored a ruling of the Constitutional Court that requires the legislature to provide legal protection for same sex couples. The president’s failure to support the Court’s decision by explicitly asking the parliament to obey it or by proposing the necessary legislation himself, has not only negatively affected the LGBTQ community in Latvia, but also further weakened the rule of law in the country.
The president has further disappointed liberal forces by arguing that while Latvia should implement most of the measures stipulated by the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, it does not need to ratify the whole treaty.At the same time, his record has not been fully convincing for nationalists either: Some members of the National Alliance have allegedly seen him as “too passive on some issues.” Nevertheless, on April 17, 2023, the National Alliance nominated Levits for re-election. The president’s sudden withdrawal from the race can be understood as his acceptance of the political reality: His chances to gather the necessary support of 51 seemed to be meager, while his rival Uldis Pīlēns appeared to be able to count not only on the support of his own party, but also some of the opposition forces.
United List’s candidate: Uldis Pīlēns
Uldis Pīlēns (b. 1956) is an architect and entrepreneur from Latvia’s third-largest city Liepāja (pop. approx. 67,000), with a strong background in business, but limited experience in politics. His political activities prior to 2023 have been limited to being a board member of the People’s Party (Tautas partija, the political party of Latvian oligarch Andris Šķēle) between 1998 and 2008, and being a deputy in Liepāja’s city council between 2005 and 2009. In 2022, Pīlēns established an electoral alliance called the United List. As noted before, the United List consists of three smaller parties that all have strong on-the-ground connections outside of Riga: The Liepāja Party (Liepājas Partija) is the regional party of Liepāja; the Green Party (Latvijas Zaļā partija) is not a green party in the traditional Western European sense, but a long-term ally of oligarch Aivars Lembergs, though it now claims to have broken away from the oligarch; finally, the Regional Alliance (Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība), which, as its name indicates, is the union of other much smaller regional parties and political groups. It seems that Pīlēns’ political ambition has been mainly focused on highest offices in the land without being ready to accept less prominent positions: Before the 2022 parliamentary elections, he became his party’s prime ministerial candidate, but did not stand for election in the parliament. After the elections, when the United List became a member of the governing coalition, Pīlēns — despite his proclaimed interest in the economic advancement of Latvia — did not opt for becoming a minister in the new government and reappeared in national politics only on the eve of presidential elections.
While the United List has praised Pīlēns’ entrepreneurial spirit — which, according to them, could contribute to improving Latvia’s economic situation — political commentators have raised questions about his relationship with former oligarch Šķēle, his willingness to work with a party formerly associated with oligarch Lembergs, his lack of experience in international politics, and his studies in East Germany (GDR) during the Soviet era.
As noted, Levits has accused Pīlēns of benefiting from the support of oligarch and pro-Kremlin forces. The two political parties referenced by Levits are For Stability! (Stabilitātei!), a party catering to Russian speakers with 10 seats in the parliament, and Latvia First (Latvija Pirmajā Vietā), the party of the former oligarch Ainārs Šlesers (nine seats). These two opposition parties have indeed expressed support for Pīlēns, but have strongly rejected the president’s accusations of pro-Russian or oligarchic tendencies. They also have not hidden that their support for Pīlēns, to a large extent, comes from the hope that his election might topple the current government. These hopes are fueled by rumors about disastrous relations between Pīlēns and Prime Minister Kariņš. The prime minister’s party, New Unity, has indeed refused to support Pīlēns’ bid for presidency and, after Levits’ withdrawal, nominated its own candidate — current Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs.
New Unity candidate Edgars Rinkēvičs and Progressives candidate Elīna Pinto
Before becoming Latvia’s longest-serving foreign minister (in office since 2011), Edgars Rinkēvičs was a high-ranking civil servant at the Ministry of Defense and the Head of the Chancery of the President under President Zatlers. In 2014, Rinkēvičs became the first Latvian politician to come out as gay. His strong support for Ukraine and overall foreign policy record has made him one of the most popular politicians in the country. However, despite Rinkēvičs’ credentials, his chances to get elected do not seem as high as those of Pīlēns. While it looks like Pīlēns will be able to secure at least 34 votes (from the United List, Latvia First and For Stability!), Rinkēvičs, for now, can count only on the support from the 26 deputies from New Unity. The National Alliance, New Unity’s partner in the governing coalition, has adamantly refused to vote for Rinkēvičs, arguing that the prime minister and president should not come from the same party. Meanwhile the Progressives, a left-wing opposition party that shares New Unity’s social liberal stance on several burning issues in Latvian society, has nominated their own candidate Elīna Pinto.
Pinto has considerable experience with diaspora and social activism, as well as in international organizations, including as a consultant for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Luxembourg. She was Levits’ advisor on modern state and sustainability affairs between 2019 and 2020. Pinto’s chances to get elected are slim, as she can only count on the ten votes from the Progressives. Yet, by nominating their own candidate, the Progressives have seized the chance to gain a platform and visibility for their ideas, ensuring that even as an opposition party, they are part of the national conversation and preparing for the 2024 European elections.
It is likely that Pinto will be the first candidate to drop out on the election date, and at that moment, the Progressives would vote for Rinkēvičs during the third voting round. This, however, would give him only 36 votes. Both Pīlēns and Rinkēvičs chances to get elected at this point depend on the Farmers and Greens (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība), an opposition party that has close ties with former oligarch Aivars Lembergs. Farmers and Greens, who have not yet decided to which candidate their 16 votes would go, are signaling that they are open to all possible offers. It is clear that their ultimate goal is to become a member of the government coalition, yet their long-time connection with Lembergs — who is sanctioned by the US under the Magnitsky Act — makes them a very problematic partner. At the same time, their votes are so valuable in these elections, that even Levits has tried to argue that Farmers and Greens are “a traditional conservative party that has cornered itself through its dependency from one toxic person.” Meanwhile, Pīlēns has pointed out that all votes in the parliament are equal and thus he is ready to accept support from all political parties.
Two weeks is a long time in Latvian politics, yet it seems that either Pīlēns will be elected on May 31, or that none of the candidates will gather the necessary 51 votes and new elections will be held by mid-June. In that case, the contest will be open to new candidates, and it is possible that a nonpartisan candidate will be nominated to escape party rivalry. One such person could be Latvian diplomat and current NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy Baiba Braže whose name has often been mentioned in Latvian media outlets when discussing possible candidates for these elections.
The race has once again highlighted the limits of cooperation between the parties that form the governing coalition in Latvia. The United List has nominated their candidate without consulting its partners and the partners refused to support him. While New Unity agreed earlier to support National Alliance’s candidate, National Alliance refused to subsequently support New Unity’s candidate. The weeks following the elections will show whether these disagreements will have a long-term effect on the government’s stability.
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.