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Resign and rule: Latvia’s local elections analysed

The low voter turnout and inconclusive results in the Latvian municipal elections are likely to be repeated in next year’s general election.

July 13, 2021 - Samuel Kramer - Analysis

Town Hall in the Central Square in Kuldiga in Kurzeme in Western Latvia. Photo: Roman Babakin / Shutterstock

The past several years have revealed a significant fracture in democratic politics. Simply put, voters are increasingly returning divided legislatures with competing priorities. Belgium’s two-year struggle to form a government and Peru’s divided congress are symptoms of a wider issue. The European Union’s eastern flank is not immune to this problem either. June 5th marked a pivotal moment for Latvian politics, as less than half of eligible voters turned out for the local elections. Neither the incumbent centre-right government’s member parties nor its various populist opponents have a clear path to power. Regardless of motivation, the results point to a broader dissatisfaction with the status quo which will continue into the next election cycle.

What happened? Who benefits?

Amid low turnout and a crowded field of 27 parties, three groups of challengers benefited from the results. This includes several ‘revived’ parties, the opposition (inside and outside parliament) and local parties. New parties or returnees from the political wilderness appeared popular among those who turned out to vote. In mid-sized towns across the country, the resurgent liberal For Latvia’s Development movement made gains and won pluralities in four municipalities. These were the first elections where the party won seats as an independent group. Within the cluster of opposition parties the centrist-populist Latvian Association of Regions, which failed to gain representation in parliament in 2017, won the highest vote share and took control of five municipal governments. The major ports of Ventspils and Liepāja remain firmly controlled by the centre-right Union of Greens and Farmers. Despite competing separately in several places, the Union’s component parties came first in five municipalities and their combined lists took first place in five more. Localist parties also performed well and voters gave them the largest vote share in five municipalities. This is equal to the support gained by the Latvian Association of Regions and Union of Greens and Farmers. No party won a majority of the municipalities, let alone a sizeable plurality. The result ultimately represented more of a sigh than an ideological shift.

Why Latvians did not vote… Or did they?

Latvia’s Central Election Commission reported that only 34.09 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. This year’s result is not anomalous, the 2020 Riga City Council election resulted in a similarly low turnout of 40 per cent. Commentators have offered multiple explanations for why Latvians decided to stay home. For example, researcher Daunis Auers blamed COVID-19 fatigue, whilst President Egils Levits even suggested the low turnout was driven partly by satisfaction with the status quo. However, not all the explanations given for voter disinterest are so optimistic. Scholars have long argued that voter apathy signals growing political uncertainty. A 2014 Florida State University study pointed out the difference between the “apathetic invalid” voter, who stays home out of disinterest, and the “highly politicised invalid” voter, who purposefully does not vote to send a message to political candidates. The key to bolstering Latvian democracy is identifying the roots of citizens’ discontent.

Pre-election political and social turbulence may explain voter motivations. Overall, these issues suggest that many people did not vote for political reasons. The syncretic Who Owns the State? party (now known as For a Humane Latvia) left the government earlier this year when its Economy Minister Jānis Vitenbergs retained his post after switching to the right-wing National Alliance. The switch upset a delicate political balance that was necessary to keep the narrow centre-right coalition in office. Beyond this parliamentary confusion, the recently announced gas tariff hike from 25 per cent to 43.1 per cent will affect a country reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and an accompanying economic slump. It is possible that voter division and disinterest came in response to the muddled political scene. Government uncertainty alongside a shaky economic situation provided opportunities for challengers to define themselves against the incumbent administration’s policies and values. The record level of abstentions and fractured votes show that the public’s decision to sit out the election is deliberate and political in nature.

An October 2022 surprise

What conclusions can observers draw from the June 5th vote? The results are too fractured for any party or group to truly declare victory. While different opposition parties enjoyed modest success, they failed to make inroads beyond their traditional strongholds. In the election, the main opposition and largest parliamentary party, the Social Democratic Party “Harmony”, won only two municipalities that traditionally support its agenda the eastern cities of Daugavpils and Rēzeknē. Interestingly, the party barely campaigned outside the eastern region and lost half of its seats on the Liepāja City Council. Likewise, most governing parties did not improve on their 2017 results or capitalise on opposition frustrations. The prime minister’s New Unity party remained stagnant, winning in four municipalities, while its National Alliance partner plunged from leading 12 municipalities to five. For Latvia’s Development consequently became the most successful coalition member with its four municipal pluralities. Newcomers like The Progressives failed to make any real impact. However, the extra-parliamentary Latvian Association of Regions made an impressive return. Neither side was eliminated from the political field but both the government and opposition were denied a decisive verdict on their political futures.

In the short term, the government’s composition and likely preparations for the October 2022 parliamentary (Saiema) elections will be affected by these inconclusive results. When Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš restarted cabinet reshuffle negotiations a day after the election, it marked the start of an internal reassessment by the centre-right coalition. Kariņš’ challengers are also making calculations for the 2022 elections. Despite the opposition Greens and Farmers’ strong results, their longtime ally Ainārs Šlesers announced a week later that he would create a new, explicitly populist party that would “put Latvia first”. It is clear that Šlesers, a powerful figure since independence, has been observing trends since he chose to create a new party rather than support an existing one.

If the local election results mirror public opinion, the October 2022 parliamentary polls will likely provide little comfort for anyone. As in previous years, no party will gain a majority and fracture and compromise will remain the order of the day. Established parties like Harmony and New Unity will face younger, energised challengers in the Progressives, Latvian Association of Regions and For Latvia’s Development Minority and coalition governments around the world are increasingly discovering that the public is unwilling to grant one political grouping absolute power through a majority vote. Consequently,political leaders will need to understand and address the sources of public discontent if they wish to gain a decisive victory at the polls.

Samuel Kramer is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews. He has a Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and a Master of Arts from Georgetown University’s Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies. He has experience in the public sector, non-profit research, and due diligence. Mr. Kramer specialises in minority rights in the post-Soviet space and their intersection with the democratisation process.

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