Voting in Latvia can be confusing

It’s an election year in Latvia. Some of us who have grown up in western democracies and are now citizens of Latvia again will need to cast a vote, which is an often confusing experience. Others will simply be observers, wanting to know Latvia better, but finding its politics hard to follow.

If you feel confused, you are not alone: Latvia does have a radically different electoral system to that of most countries, not to mention a highly confusing party system!

The Latvian electoral system

In Latvia the parliament is unicameral. In other words, there is only one legislative house (the Saeima) and there is no upper house.

As in most countries, an election in Lativa is fought out between political parties, but on the basis of proportional representation. Voters do not cast ballots for a a member of parliament who represents a local area, but parties get candidates into the Saeima on the basis of the proportion of votes that the party as a whole obtains. Latvia is divided into five electoral regions—Kurzeme, Latgale, Rīga, Vidzeme and Zemgale—and in each region parties will get representation proportional to the vote received. Voters living outside Latvia are counted as part of the Rīga region.

This system of proportional representation was adopted for important historical reasons. After World War I, the powers at the Versailles peace talks (and later in the League of Nations) were very concerned about issues of minority rights. Minority issues particularly in the Balkans had directly led to World War I. It was considered that the new states in Eastern Europe that emerged after World War I should provide specific guarantees of minority rights in their constitutions. An electoral system allowing the broadest possible representation was favoured. Any significant minority should be able to get its candidates into the parliament, and proportional representation provided a way of doing this.

Proportional representation of some kind is still widely practiced in Europe. Of course, one down side of this system is that often there is no one clear majority party. After each election many parties are represented, and forming an effective government is difficult. Up to 30 parties were represented in the four pre-war parliaments in Latvia, and this was the ostensible reason for the ending of party democracy and the usurping of power by President Kārlis Ulmanis in 1934. This was more or less what happened in almost all Eastern (and many Western) European countries in the inter-war period; Latvia was not exceptional.

To save a repeat of the situation where many parties had just one or two members in the Saeima—leading to endless political instability and horse-trading—Latvia has introduced a 5 percent hurdle. Any party must get 5 percent of the vote to get any candidates in the Saeima. This has led to a drastic reduction in the number of parties represented in the Saeima, but has not resulted in any party having a majority after any Saeima election. The tradition of coalition government continues.

How to cast your vote

To vote in the proportional representation system, an elector receives a thick bundle of voting lists, one for each party standing, and from these they select and deposit in the ballot envelope just one such list. Choose your party, and vote for it.

So far, so simple. However, there is one further important feature: on the list of candidates of their chosen party, electors may place a “+” next to candidates, or they may cross out any number of names on the list, to indicate their attitude to individual candidates. A “+” next to a candidate’s name gives that candidate an “extra vote” relative to all the other candidates on that party list. Correspondingly, the crossing out of a candidate’s name loses that candidate a vote relative to all other candidates on that list. Thus, even when choosing a party, you can indicate a positive or negative attitude towards individual candidates of that party. This is to overcome a situation where you are forced to vote for a list even though some individuals on that list do not appeal to you.

Wherever you live or vote, I am sure that many of you would sometimes welcome the opportunity to cross out someone’s name on your ballot!

Which candidates on the party list are elected? The order of candidates on the list is determined by the party when handing in a list of candidates to the Central Elections Commission. Candidates are listed in order as the party prefers them. Whatever percentage of the ballots a party gets, that percentage of the party’s candidates are declared elected, in the order they appear on the ballot (give or take any changes made by the “+” marks or negations of individual candidates).

And just one final nuance. It is possible for candidates to stand in as many regions as they wish. Popular candidates will do this to attract more votes to their party.

You bet it’s confusing!

The system is even confusing to the people in Latvia. The Soviet system did have elections of a kind, but they were based not on proportional representation (after all, there was only one party!) but on local candidates in a specific electoral area. Interestingly, the last Latvian Supreme Soviet, elected in 1990 when the Soviet Union was rapidly changing, consisted of locally elected deputies. Through all the struggles of the following years, local electors often put considerable pressure on their deputies, and the deputies often felt accountable to their electorate.

This points to the second significant drawback of proportional representation, apart from always leading to coalition governments. That is, that voters do not feel like they have someone who is clearly identified as “their” local representative in the Saeima. Voters can never identify a local politician, and politicians can often have the feeling that they are not really directly responsible to electors. This is just one of the factors leading to considerable political disillusionment among voters.

Those who are used to voting in systems where we elect local members of a parliament or a congress (as for example in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada or Australia) will always find this Latvian system strange. But it is important to remember that, not unlike other systems, you are in the end voting for one party.

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