A curious system and a curious election

Pre-election campaigns—and pre-election muckraking—are hotting up for the Latvian Saeima (Parliament) elections on Oct. 7. But unlike previous elections, there is no clear front-running party likely to dominate, and more voters are undecided at this stage on who to vote for.

The closeness of the parties indicates that each vote and each preference for a candidate on a party list will be important. Here we look briefly at the tone of the present campaign, and then explain as clearly as we can how to cast a valid vote in the complicated voting system for the Saeima that still confuses many in the West—and many still in Latvia itself.

A poor showing by political parties

Surveys of voting intentions over the past year have consistently showed that no one party is leading in this election. The most recent survey by the Rīga-based research firm SKDS in mid-August showed five parties were likely to be represented in the Saeima (a party has to gain at least 5 percent of the vote to gain representation). These five are:

  • Jaunais laiks (New Era), 12 percent
  • Zaļo un Zemnieku Savienība (Union of Greens and Farmers, or ZZS), 11.2 percent
  • Par cilvēku tiesībām vienotā Latvijā (For Human Rights in a United Latvia, or PCTVL), 9.3 percent
  • Tautas Partija (People’s Party), 8.9 percent
  • Tēvzemei un brīvībai / LNNK (For Fatherland and Freedom, or TB/LNNK), 6 percent

Three other parties have less than 5 percent, but still may be in the hunt for representation: Latvijas Sociāldemokrātiskā Strādnieku partija (Latvian Social Democratic Labor Party, or LSDSP), Latvijas Pirmā Partija (First Party of Latvia, or LPP) and Saskaņas centrs (Harmony Centre).

The most striking finding in this study, however, is that some 24 percent of voters are still undecided who to vote for, compared to 15 percent at this time before the previous Saeima elections.

All parties seem to have suffered from various political disasters, from the scandal of Jūrmalgate (which particularly affected Ainars Šlesers, the LPP transport minister forced to resign over his telephone calls on bribery of Jūrmala councilors, and Andris Šķēle, former leader of the People’s Party) to recent similar phone calls in Rēzekne implicating New Era members in an election funding scandal. Aivars Lembergs, controversial mayor of Ventspils, has been nominated by ZZS as its candidate for prime minister, but he is currently under investigation for various financial irregularities. And Einars Repše, who strongly led New Era into the last Saeima, has become clearly unpopular even with his own party members.

The prestige of politicians has not been helped by a number of controversial social issues, particularly the clear homophobia of several politicians (and the churches) in response to the gay pride movement during the past two years, and the confusion of many other politicians as to how to handle this issue. Religion is raising its head in Latvian politics in unexpected ways, creating strange alliances.

The Latvian voting system

The particular voting system used in Latvia (and many other Eastern European countries) is one that still baffles many people more used to voting systems especially in English-speaking countries or Western Europe.

In the Latvian system, you vote for a party, not for an individual candidate in a local electorate. Voters receive as many ballot papers as there are party lists (19 in the present election). Each voter then chooses one party and puts that party list in the voting envelope, which goes in the ballot box. Envelopes containing more than one ballot paper are invalid.

But you can still vote for and against a particular candidate within the party list. This is perhaps an even more confusing aspect of the Latvian sysem, and arises out of the consideration that voters may prefer a particular party, but not necessarily every individual within that party list. Basically, the overall number of votes for the party will determine how many of the party list becomes deputies, reading from the top of the list down (the order has been decided by the party submitting its list). However, voters are able to indicate their preference for candidates within that list. Voters may wish to promote particular individuals, or demote others, so they may put a plus sign (+) beside a candidate’s name, or alternatively cross out a candidate’s name. A plus sign has the effect of giving that candidate one more vote than others on the list; crossing out a name will result in one vote being taken off them relative to others. You can also deposit your ballot paper without alteration if you are happy with the candidates and their order on the list.

Why was such a sysem adopted in Latvia? As for voting for a party, not a candidate in a local electorate, its history dates back to immediate post-World War I Europe, when concern over minority groups not being represented in parliaments led to the widespread use of this system, known as proportional representation. (World War I was seen to have largely been ignited by unhappy minorites in the Balkans). In Eastern Europe and countries such as Italy that use this system, this has led to almost perpetual coalition governments because there is often no one clear-cut dominant party.

This differs from the system adopted in English-speaking countries and many western European countries where voters elect a candidate from a local geographical electorate. This system favours large parties that can win many electorates, and disadvantages smaller parties which, if they get say 10 percent of the overall vote, still may not win a single electorate. So we see such examples as the United States where it is almost impossible for a candidate not from the two major parties to gain representation in that system. In the proportional system, a party getting 10 percent of the votes gets 10 percent of the deputies in parliament. In Latvia before World War II, a party could gain representation with as little as 1 percent of the vote, but this has since been changed to avoid splintering and a party now has to reach 5 percent to get any deputies at all.

The plus and minus sysem is simple recognition that not all voters will like equally all candidates on their preferred party list. Curiously, this does have a precedent in the Soviet system of voting. In that system, of course, there was only one party and voting (like in English-speaking countries) was for candidates in local electorates. There was of course only one candidate for each electorate, from the Communist Party, but voters could cross this name out if they desired, and in a small number of cases candidates received many cross-outs. This was a warning to the party of something wrong, and the need to look at the performance of this candidate.

Most voting systems in the world do not allow crossing out of a candidate’s name. Voters in Latvia seem to take particular pleasure in this exercise of some power over the candidates their party has offered them!

10 thoughts on “A curious system and a curious election

  1. I appreciate Uldis Ozolins for writing a clear and comprehensive report of the voting system in Latvia. Surprisingly, Latvia chose this archaic system, but not one used in the western world. He also describes some of the notorious politicians whose integrity is questionable. I hope that this trait is only evident during changing times.

  2. Before one rushes to conclusions and describes Latvia’s voting system as archaic as Plume has done, it might be of value to investigate the myriad of voting systems around the World including countries in the West. Here’s a source – http://www.fairvote.org/factshts/index.htm Proportional systems and variations might be unfamiliar to those living in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom but they are common elsewhere.

  3. Without taking any position on the suitability of Latvia’s voting system itself, one can only chuckle at the irony of Australians and Americans, who live in countries with first-past-the post voting systems and institutionalized gerrymandering, decrying the Latvian system as ‘ancient’ and ‘curious’.

  4. The Latvian system is not archaic — quite the opposite. The prejudices against it seem to come primarily from those in countries with FPTP systems, as Aldis and Viesturs Zariņš point out.

    There is actually considerable movement towards proportional voting in countries with FPTP (e.g., EP elections, and elections in Scotland, are proportional in the UK).

    There are excellent arguments for the superiority of the Latvian system —


    Vysu lobu,


  5. I cannot pretend to know a great deal about the voting systems of other countries, but for one commentator to describe Australia’s systems so simplistically is just plain wrong. For starters, at Federal level (there are State Parliaments as well) there is the Upper (Senate) and Lower House, with different election rules for each House.

    It is true that the lower house system is first past the post if the first count is less than 50% but then preferences kick in after that.

    It would also be fair to say that in the Lower House, only a very popular party/candidate can get in, whereas smaller parties have a chance to get a Senate seat(s).

    But realistically, it is probably impossible to come up with an electoral system that is perfect. I think Australia’s system is not a bad attempt, because the party that does have a clear mandate has quite a few years to implement their policies. In other words, the system over here does have some stability.

  6. 24% undecided. Most interestingly the Auditor of the departments the Ministers lead has something to say http://www.lrvk.gov.lv/?lang=en . In fact the State Audit Authority has released a lot of recommendations and uncovered a lot of corruption within the existing Parties. There have been a lot of press releases so this is not secret. MOST INTERSTINGLY not one party running for re-election has said it would take action to improve efficiency based on the Audit Authority’s findings. So we in Latvia can expect more of the same in the comming years which smacks of Gross Negligence.

  7. There is nothing whatever wrong with the Latvian voting system. What they require above all is to become accustomed to genuine electoral freedom, which is what their system offers to an extent not available to most others. The 5 percent minimum requirement may appear an undemocreatic constraint, but we don’t live in a perfect world.

  8. The Latvian electoral system is fine — confusing at times and perhaps more unusual to the “Anglo-American” community that favours “first-past-the-post”. PR is a system used in MOST European countries, so it’s not “unusual” at all. And why didn’t we talk about Repše’s car troubles? Or how TB sent all their “big boys” to Brussels to take advantage of the bigger MEP wage packets? Latvian politics is just cursed right now, a plethora of parties with rather similar platforms and philosophies — differed only by personality disputes between Lembergs/Udre, Repše, Sleezers, and so forth. We should just have a grand coalition like in 1995, lock them all in a room and have them settle it the old fashion way.

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