Latvia

Background

Latvian history at a glance

In the Great Northern War (1700-1721), Russia supplanted Sweden as the dominant power on the Baltic Sea, and owing to the partition of Poland, all of present-day Latvia was subject to Russian rule by the end of the century. During the 19th century, the era of national awakening was initiated, but the idea of Latvian independence did not gain momentum before in the beginning of the 1900s.

In 1918, following World War I and the revolution in Russia, Latvia seized the opportunity to declare independence (recognized by Russia in 1920 and by the international community in 1921) and a government was formed under the leadership of Karlis Ulmanis. Elections were held in 1920 and a new constitution was in place by 1922. However, Latvia between the two wars was marked by a severely unstable political situation. In 1934, Ulmanis issued a decree declaring a state of siege, the parliament was dissolved, all parties were banned and an dictatorial regime was installed. The fate of Latvia was sealed with the Molotov-Ribbentrop (or German-Soviet non-aggression) pact of 1939. Soviet military, naval and air bases were established in Latvian territory in 1939, and the following year Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union (SU). Following a period under German occupation (1941-1944), Latvia was annexed by the SU.

The first decade under SU rule was characterized by harsh political repression (including waves of mass deportation), radical socioeconomic change (collectivization), extreme russification and large-scale immigration from Russia. In the mid 1980s, the first anti-Soviet movements were established and demonstrations against the SU were organized. In the semi-free elections of 1990, the Popular Front, which led the independence struggle, obtained 2/3 of the seats in parliament and independence was declared shortly afterwards. Following a Soviet attempt to overthrow the legitimate Latvian authorities, the USSR officially recognized Latvian independence in September 1991. In 2004, Latvia joined NATO and the EU.

Politics in the new era

Latvia is a parliamentary republic. The supreme legislative body is the Saeima (Parliament), the 100 members of which are elected by universal adult suffrage for a four-year term. The president is head of state, however, executive power is held by the Cabinet of Ministers, which is headed by the prime minister. The prime minister is appointed by the president; the remaining members of the cabinet are nominated by the prime minister.

Latvian administrations since 1991 have generally not been very long-lasting, as party coalitions shift, party lists disintegrate and reform, and individual politicians change allegiances.

In 1990, elections for the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia were organized. The elections were the first in which candidates from various political movements were allowed to participate since the Soviet occupation. The Popular Front which had led the struggle for independence won an overall majority of the votes. In June 1993 more than twenty political parties or coalitions contended for seats in the& first election after the Latvian declaration of independence. Latvia's Way won the election and headed a centre-right government coalition together with the Farmer's Union, which came fourth in the election. Popular Front did not pass the required 4 percent threshold for representation.

The 1995 elections brought about a chaotic political situation as parliament was severely fragmented. After seven weeks, a broad coalition was formed that included six of nine parties in parliament under the leadership of the none-partisan prime minister Andris Šķēle. The 1997 scandal, in which ministers were accused of violating the anti-corruption law that bars senior officials from holding positions in private business, led to the resignation of several ministers and, finally, of Šķēle himself. A new government that comprised the same parties was installed.

In the 1998 elections, the right-centre parties of the newly formed People's Party (TP), Latvian Way and Fatherland and Freedom/Latvian National Independence Movement came first, second and third. Owing to personal conflicts and scandals, they were not able to put together a coalition government. The period 1998-2000 saw the collapse of two governments before the four-party coalition of Andris Bērziņš (Latvian Way) was installed.

Prior to the 2002 elections, two new parties entered the stage: New Era (JL) and Latvia First Party (LPP). Both advocated the fight against corruption and came first and fourth in the elections. A new government coalition was formed comprising the JL (which took the post of the prime minister), LPP, Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), and For Fatherland and Freedom/Latvian National Independence Movement (TB/LNNK). The administration, with an average age of 39, was the youngest ever in modern Latvia, with relatively little experience of government office. The outcome of the 2002 elections thus seemed to be a direct response to public demand that Lavia develop a new era in its politics. In June 2003, coalition members had started to withdraw, and when the LLP also left the coalition in February 2004 it caused the resignation of the Repše administration. A new short-lived, right-of-centre, coalition government was approved by the Saeima on March 9. However, by October the draft budget was defeated in a parliamentary vote, precipitating the collapse of the ruling coalition. President Viķe-Freiberga asked Aigars Kalvītis of the TP (which had led opposition to the proposed budget) to form a new government, and on December 2, following prolonged negotiations, the Saeima approved the formation of a government comprising members of the TP, New Era, the GFU—ZZS (an alliance of the Centre Party, the Latvian Farmers’ Union and the Latvian Green Party) and the LPP. New Era withdrew from the coalition in Spring 2006.

The 2006 general elections, which were scheduled for October 7, secured a second victory for the ruling centre-right coalition led by the People's Party leader Aigar Kalvītis. Coalition parties included the Centre Party - the Latvian Peasants Union and the Green Party.

Sources

Davies, P.J. and A. V. Ozolins. "The parliamentary election in Latvia, October 2002. Electoral Studies 23 (2004) 821-845.