Election preview: Latvia

There are four national elections being held this weekend. The first, on Saturday, is also the smallest, but in some ways it’s the most interesting, so we’ll look at it today. Tomorrow I’ll do a quick rundown on the other three.

In the last Latvian election, held four years ago, seven parties cleared the 5% threshold to win seats in parliament. The largest of them was the Social Democrats (also called “Harmony”), which won 19.8% of the vote and 23 of the 100 seats, but because they represent the interests of the ethnic Russian minority and were therefore even then regarded as a potential fifth column, five of the other six parties teamed up in a coalition to exclude them.

Somewhat surprisingly, the coalition has lasted a full term. One of its components, the populist Who Owns The State?, has disintegrated, but the other four are all polling above or close to the threshold. So are the Social Democrats, the Union of Greens & Farmers (who had 9.9% last time), and another six hopefuls, for a potential total of twelve.

Since 2018, Latvia has become a much more pivotal country, and the Russian threat now seems much less hypothetical. First the Belarusian crisis of 2020 and then this year’s invasion of Ukraine have brought home the perils of being a neighbor and former imperial possession of Russia, and the Latvian government has been at the forefront of support for both the opposition in Belarus and the government of Ukraine.

The unifying effect of the foreign threat (and of Covid-19) has no doubt helped to keep the government together. Prime minister Krišjāņis Kariņš leads a centre-right party called, appropriately, New Unity (formerly just Unity), which has a commanding lead in the polls; its support has trebled to around 20%. Its three coalition partners – National Alliance (right to far right), Development/For! (liberal) and the Conservatives (also centre-right) – are polling a similar amount between them, although the last two are in some danger of falling below the threshold.

Of the two current opposition parties, the Greens & Farmers are holding their support fairly well, at around 9%, but the Social Democrats have plummeted to below 10%. Best of the potential newcomers are the United List (bringing together Greens and regionalists), also somewhere around 9%, followed close behind by the Progressives, a centre-left rival to the Social Democrats.

In addition to the Social Democrats, there are other options for the ethnic Russian community: the Latvian Russian Union (regarded as more pro-Kremlin) and a new party called For Stability!, both polling close to the 5% mark. But in view of the geopolitical situation there seems less prospect than ever of them being brought within the tent. (Latvia’s public broadcaster again has a comprehensive guide to the parties.)

Kariņš says that he would prefer to continue with the existing coalition, but there are signs that voters are looking for a change. Most probably, however, it will be a matter of reshuffling some jobs and taking in an extra partner or two rather than any wholesale replacement of the current government. It does not seem like an ideal time to engage in experimentation.

Voting is proportional (Sainte-Laguë) within each of five multi-member constituencies; there’s no mechanism to ensure overall proportionality, but the constituencies are all large and not malapportioned, so there’s very little distortion. Latvia isn’t very big, so results should be mostly final by Sunday morning, Australian time.

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