How do elections work in Latvia?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 15th September 2022

Latvia’s election this Saturday (1st October) has been in the calendar for a while – a referendum is required to dissolve the Latvian parliament early. Such a vote can be called either by the president, at the risk of their own job if it fails, or if 10% of the electorate demands a recall of parliament by petition. The power has been used once, in 2011.

The Latvian voting system

Latvia’s parliament – the Saeima – is comprised of 100 members and is elected using open list proportional representation in five constituencies based on the historic cultural regions of Latvia, plus the capital Riga. Each constituency elects a group of MPs to represent the constituency. To be able to win seats, a party must win 5% of the vote nationally.

As well as casting a vote for a party list, voters are able to cast positive votes (via a + next to their name) or negative votes (crossing their name out) for individual candidates on that list. Which members are elected is determined fully by these preference votes – with candidates elected in the order of positive votes, less negative votes.

The Latvian party system

The Latvian party system is notable for the fact that general ideological divisions (left/right, liberal/conservative) aren’t a big factor in its shape – most parties are broadly right-of-centre. Instead, key divisions are built around attitudes to Russia and the significant Russian minority in Latvia (25% of the population), as well as opposition to perceived corruption.

More broadly the Latvian party system is, like many in eastern Europe, fairly multi-party and not particularly settled. No party is currently polling higher than 20%. One of the more stable parties has been Harmony, who have won around a quarter of the vote at most recent elections. They were the only left-of-centre party to win seats in 2018 and are the main voice of the Russian minority. Polls suggest, however, that they will see significant losses this time in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The government since the last election has been led by MEP Krišjānis Kariņš of the centre-right New Unity (JV), the prime minister doesn’t have to be an MP themselves. New Unity have been leading the polls going into this election but were the smallest party in the last parliament. He gained the position as a compromise candidate when the larger parties refused to back each other’s leaders as prime minister. Rather than setting the agenda, his role was that of an “honest broker between the competing interests”.

The prime minister chairs the meetings, but it is voters who decide the power of each party, and thus the number of cabinet positions they have if they decide to enter the government.

Parties hoping to cross the 5% threshold this time include the centrist Latvian Association of Regions (LRA), the extremely pro-Russia Latvian Russian Union (LKS) and the right-wing populist Latvia First. The most interesting challenger party is the Riga-based Progressives, who hope to become the first left-of-centre, progressive party in the Saeima in 20 years.

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