On Wednesday, 3 June, Latvia’s Saeima met for a extraordinary session to elect a new president to succeed Andris Bērziņš. Deputies eventually chose defence minster Raimonds Vējonis as the new head of state, yet only after five rounds of voting and amid continued uncertainty whether Vejonis would be able to gather sufficient votes. While Vējonis has stronger ties with his party – the Greens and Farmers Union – than his soon-to-be predecessor Bērziņš, the role of the presidency is unlikely to change during his incumbency. However, given that he eventually won against Egils Levits, who was nominated by the Greens’ coalition partner, the election might well be an indicator of first cracks in the government.
Latvia employs an interesting method of indirect presidential elections with a limited number of repeated run-offs and an absolute majority requirement. To be elected, the successful candidate needs at least 51 votes in the 101 seat parliament. If no candidate achieves the required majority in the first round of voting, a second round is held with all candidates, thereafter the candidate with the least amount of votes is dropped and a new vote is held. If no candidate is elected in the fifth round of voting, the election is postponed and new candidates need to be nominated.
Until now, parliament has only once taken more than two rounds of voting to elect a new president. Apart from the inaugural election in 1993 candidates were even elected during the first round. In 1999, however, five rounds of voting proved inconclusive and new candidates had to be nominated. The protracted election of Vejonis is thus rather unusual, even though coalition parties have until now only twice nominated a common candidate (Ulmanis in 1993 and Zatlers in 2007) and the majority was thus less than clear.
The National Alliance had already openly speculated about nominating their own candidate, rather than coordinating with their coalition partners, when it was still unclear whether incumbent Bērziņš would run again. The Greens’ and Farmers Union on the other hand took longer to find a new candidate and it initially looked like Unity, the largest coalition partner, would also present its own candidate, yet eventually supported Vējonis (also because the party could not agree on candidate). The social-democratic Harmony Party nominated their MP Sergejs Dolgopolovs, yet due to the party’s close association with the ethnic Russian minority it was clear from the beginning that his candidacy would be unsuccessful. Given the fact that the National Alliance put forward their own candidate, at least some of Harmony’s votes on the other hand would be/were necessary for electing any candidate. Equally without chance was the candidate of the Association of Regions, former basketball star and businessman Martins Bondars. The ‘For Latvia from the Heart’ party did not nominate their own candidate and did not impose a whip on their seven deputies.
The results of the first three rounds of voting show that at least some Unity and Green deputies (23 and 21, respectively) did not vote for Vējonis but it is difficult to reconstruct whether they voted for Levits, voted against all candidates, or spoiled their ballot. Harmony’s candidate Dolgopolovs appears to have only received the votes of his co-partisans (the party holds 24 seats in the Saeima). Votes ‘against all’ increased continuously through the rounds and National Alliance leader Raivis Dzintars told the press that his party would vote against Vējonis. Thus, even after the fourth round of voting, it was not yet clear whether Vējonis would get a majority in the final round.
Vējonis will now serve four-year term starting 7 July. As he comes from the second largest coalition party, friendly relations between presidency and government can be expected to continue. Overall, he is likely to be less active than his predecessor-to-be Bērziņš, whose involvement in the formation of the last two governments is one of the reasons many Unity deputies opposed his potential re-election. Vējonis is not only more politically experienced and will thus be able to choose his battles more wisely, he also has better connections that will allow him to be active more effectively (as well as informally, away from of the public eye). The more interesting effect of this election will be on the dynamic within the governing coalition. Although Prime Minister Straujuma was quick to say that the conflict between the National Alliance and Unity/Greens and Farmers over the preidency would not affect the coalition, Saeima speaker and Unity leader Āboltiņa already speculated whether ‘a new government would be needed’ by the end of the year. Previous governments have not split over the election of a president, yet the fierceness of the contest is hitherto unprecedented, leaving room for a different development.
Last, there are two other interesting facts that should to be mentioned in the context of the presidential election. As in almost all democratic parliamentary republics, the election of a new president in parliament has brought up calls for introducing popular presidential elections. An opinion poll conducted by SDKS in May showed that 43% fully supported the introduction of direct elections and a further 27% moderately supported it – this is a 13% drop from last year, accompanied by an inverse change in the number of supporters of indirect election (11% tended to support, 6% fully supported; in 2014 6% tended to support, 1% fully supported). The presidential election was furthermore accompanied by a private initiative called ‘MansPrezidents.lv’ (‘My President’) which allowed citizens to ‘vote’ for potential presidential candidates in a bid to influence parliamentary decision-making and to highlight public interest in the presidency. Contrary to parliamentary results, the final winner of the contest was Martin Bondars – Raimonds Vējonis only placed 6th out of seven. Although the formation of broad public support for/opposition against candidates in indirect elections is not new (e.g. in the 2011 presidential election in Germany, the public largely supported Joachim Gauck over eventual winner Christian Wulff), this seems to be the first initiative of its kind and an interesting innovation in the context of indirect presidential elections.
The Latvia Public Broadcasting Service wrote a live blog in English during the election which can be accessed here: http://www.lsm.lv/en/article/politics/live-blog-closed-defense-minister-raimonds-vejonis-is-elected-as-latvias-next-president.a132150/