Latvia – President Bērziņš and the arithmetic of presidential re-election bids

During the last months, the possibility that Latvian president Andris Bērziņš will not be re-elected at the end of his first term this summer has been a recurrent topic of public debate in Latvia. Although the governing coalition – in which Bērziņš’ ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ is a major partner – holds significantly more than the required 51 votes to re-elect him, more and more government deputies have voiced their opposition to re-electing him for another term. Bērziņš has not yet publicly declared his intentions and until now there is no clear alternative candidate. Nevertheless, the debate highlights a recurring problem of Latvian coalition governance and showcases the arithmetic of presidential re-election bids in parliamentary systems.

Bērziņš first election in 2011 was overshadowed by the dissolution of the parliament by a referendum initiated by his predecessor, Valdis Zalters, following parties’ failure to agree on Zatlers’ re-election and parliament’s refusal to lift the immunity of an MP accused of corruption. Therefore, Zatlers’ re-election was unlikely from the start and Bērziņš – the only other candidate – won in the second round of voting with a 53:41 margin. Apart from his own party, however, only the social-democratic ‘Harmony Centre’ officially supported his candidacy and other parties decided not to impose a whip on its deputies, so that it is difficult to ascertain which other parties (or at least the majority of their deputies) eventually supported him. Even though no other candidates have officially been announced yet, this lack of clarity on his initial election does not make it easier for Bērziņš to decide whether or not to run again.

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The problems for Bērziņš lie both within the governing coalition and beyond. At first glance, it would seem likely that Bērziņš as a representative of the third largest party in parliament and the second largest in the coalition (commanding only 2 seats less than Prime Minister Straujuma’s ‘Unity’) should be re-elected to guarantee continued good relations between president and government. However, ‘Unity’ representatives still remember all too clearly Bērziņš’ unprecedented intervention in the formation of the first Straujuma cabinet (see also previous blog posts here & here), so that party leadership sees a possibility to select a more passive candidate. Furthermore, it is rumoured that senior party figures in Unity (including speaker and party leader Solvita Āboltiņa) have an interest in becoming president themselves. Yet as none of them currently has the full support of the Unity faction, the official party line is that it will support a candidate from another candidate to provide for a better sharing/separation of powers. Meanwhile the National Alliance (the third coalition) has openly speculated about nominating Egils Levits as their candidate for president. Levits, a judge at the European Court of Justice, former minister of justice and well-respected law professor and diplomat, might thereby be a candidate who would be able to draw votes from both government and opposition parties.

Eventually, the problems of agreeing on a common presidential candidate appears to be symptomatic for Latvian coalition governments. In previous presidential elections, government parties frequently fielded their own candidates only in two out of six managed to get a common candidate elected (Nikolenyi 2014). While the Latvian presidency is less powerful (not the least due to its indirect election), its shorter term length (3 years 1993-1999; 4 years 1999-present) makes it a more ‘speculative’ post which can be made subjected to political deals more easily. Furthermore, following president Zatlers successful post-presidency career (his – now defunct – ‘Reform Party’ won the second largest share of votes in the 2011 elections), the post has possibly also become more attractive to politicians who find themselves in the middle (rather than the end) or their political career.

President Bērziņš finds himself in a difficult situation. Leaders of parties have stated that they would wait for the president to make his intentions clear before announcing any candidates of their own or openly declaring support for his re-election. Even Bērziņš could convince at least some Unity deputies to support him, it seems unlikely that ‘Harmony Centre’, currently the largest of all parties in parliament (24/100 seats) and thus key to a victory without support from all government parties, would elect him again. Harmony’s opposition to Bērziņš is thereby not only linked to the president himself, but also to his party. On the one hand, party leader Urbanovics still resents Bērziņš for not providing more support in obtaining access to to classified information (a highly contentious issues given the party’s association with the ethnic Russian minority). On the other hand, Harmony was forced to concede committee seats to the ‘For Latvia from the Heart’ party due to a lack of support from the Union of Greens and Farmers. While Bērziņš’ re-election is not impossible, the fact that he has to ‘make the first move’ with incomplete information appears to be his biggest disadvantage.

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