Latvia - 2011 Election
In May 2011, as part of a criminal investigation involving prominent politicians, the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) asked the parliament to strip one of its members of his parliamentary immunity in order to search his house. On 26 May, the parliament voted against this motion. President Valdis Zatlers, whose term was due to end on 7 July, decided to dissolve the parliament. On May 28, 2011 President Zatlers, disturbed by parliament’s refusal to waive immunity for two members of parliament in relation to a corruption investigation, decided to call for a referendum on the dissolution of parliament for the first time in Latvian history.
Latvian presidential elections were held on 02 June 2011 in parliament, and Zatlers lost to Andris Berzins (a member of parliament for the Union of Greens and Farmers). Berzins obtained 53 of 100 votes in a second round, securing a majority; he took office on 08 July.
Under the Constitution, when a president calls for dismissal of the parliament, a national referendum must be held on the issue. In the 23 July referendum, the voters overwhelmingly supported the disolution of the parliament, with 94.3% of voters supporting dissolution.
Further significant changes in the political landscape occurred during the summer of 2011. The former President Zatlers created his own party – the ‘Zatlers’ Reform Party’. The ‘People’s Party’ was dissolved by its congress and ‘First Party-Latvia’s Way’ was renamed as ‘Slesers’ Reform Party’, after its leader. Most of the parties that registered for these elections had also run in 2010. In addition, 88 of the 100 elected deputies stood again.
The 17 September early parliamentary elections took place in a democratic and pluralistic environment, characterized by the rule of law, respect of fundamental freedoms, functioning democratic institutions and the existence of a genuine choice between parties offering different political platforms. These were the first early elections of the Saeima (parliament) since the foundation of the Republic of Latvia in 1918. The elections took place in the context of a long economical and internal political crisis that resulted in the parliament’s dissolution less than ten months after its election.
Thirteen lists of political parties and alliances competed for the 100-seat Saeima. The political landscape continued to be generally divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. While some political parties made efforts to reach out to both main linguistic communities, parties were still broadly perceived as representing either Latvian speakers or the country’s considerable Russian-speaking population, many of whom are non-citizens.
The diversity of the running parties and alliances offered a broad spectrum of political views. Key contenders included both governing alliances – ‘Unity’ and the ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ (running separately), the ‘Concord Centre’, seen as representing mainly Russian language minority, and the ‘Zatlers’ Reform Party’ (ZRP), a new party established by the previous president of Latvia.
Electoral contenders were able to carry out their activities freely; the campaign was rather low-key and non-confrontational, only gaining a higher level of visibility during its last week. The effects of the economic crisis, a shorter campaign period, and cuts in the spending limits had a visible impact on the campaign.
The legal framework generally provided an adequate basis for the conduct of democratic elections, but it could benefit from further improvements. Limited ballot access for convicted people whose sentences have not yet been expunged, and for those subject to lustration provisions, remains a challenge. In addition, Latvian legislation still does not allow candidates to run independently. The well-developed regulations ensure transparency of campaign finance; they were generally followed by parties and candidates. There were fewer violations than in previous years and those were pursued promptly.
Many parties’ programs were not always ideologically coherent, often reflecting different political viewpoints. The ethnic and linguistic lines between parties perceived broadly as representing Latvian speakers, and those perceived as representing the Russian-speaking population remained a main divide of the political landscape. Key contenders included both governing alliances – ‘Unity’ and the ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ (running separately), the ‘Concord Centre’, seen as mainly representing Russian language minority, and the ‘Zatlers’ Reform Party,’ which, despite the short campaign period, quickly gained visibility.
Discontent with the position of the small group of so-called oligarchs, whose influential networks extend from business interests to politics, was noticeable in the political discourse, particularly within the platforms of ‘Unity” and ‘Zatlers’ Reform Party’. The term “oligarch” was often referred to in the media to mostly three political figures who are linked to business interests: Aivars Slesers, member of the 10th Saeima, Aivars Lembergs, Mayor of Ventspils, and Andris Skele, leader of the former People’s Party and elected MP in the 10th Saeima.
The main campaign issues revolved around the economic crisis, its budgetary and social consequences, and, to a lesser extent, around the demographic situation of Latvia. An ageing population, a low birth rate and the emigration of Latvian citizens were recurrent topics in parties’ programmes. Latvian demographics were the topic of one of the three national debates on LTV1. On 16 September, the last national debate focused on the candidates for the prime minister, a topic that was often a pivotal element of the communication strategy of the key parties and alliances.
Parliamentary elections were held 17 September 2011. A new coalition government was sworn in on October 25, made up of Unity, Zatlers' Reform Party (ZRP), National Alliance (a right-wing party), and six unaffiliated former members of ZRP. Even though Harmony Center won a plurality of votes and seats, it was excluded from the new government. Harmony Center and the Union of Greens and Farmers formed the opposition. Prime Minister Dombrovskis was confirmed for a third consecutive term, a first in Latvian political history.
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