Tag Archives: Andris Berzins

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.

seat distribution latvia 2

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.

Latvia – New government under leadership of country’s first female prime minister inaugurated

On 22 January 2014, two months after the resignation of prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, parliament approved a new government under the leadership of Laimdota Straujuma, the country’s first female prime minister. While the latter fact has made international headlines and Straujuma’s inauguration brings an end to the difficult process of finding a new government leader, the new government is not necessarily an achievement for the coalition parties, but rather a (small) victory for the president.

New Latvian prime minister Laimdota Straujuma in parliament on 22 January 2014 | photo via wikimedia commons

After the resignation of prime minister Dombrovskis over the tragedy caused by the collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga, president Andris Bērziņš took a suprisingly active approach when it came to forming a new government (see also my previous post on this blog from 11 December 2013), Until early January, president Bērziņš declined to nominate any of the candidates proposed by the four centre-right parties poised to form a new coalition, while all candidates proposed by him declined to take on the job.

In the end, president and parties agreed on the nomination of Laimdota Straujuma, a 61 year-old career civil servant who – after having served in various ministries at secretary of state/deputy minister level had headed the ministry of agriculture in the last Dombrovskis government since 2011. Having not been affiliated with a political party before (her ministerial nomination had been made on the ticket of prime minister Dombrovski’s ‘Unity’ party), she only joined Unity on 5 January, two days before her nomination.

Straujuma is Latvia’s first female head of government but not the country’s first female political leader – from 07/1999 to 07/2007 Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga served as president and was the first elected female head of state in the region. Freiberga – a former professor of psychology and semiotics at the University of Montreal – was instrumental in Latvia’s EU and NATO accession and remained a non-partisan during both of her terms in office. While the latter was an advantage for her as president, Straujuma will likely be disadvantaged by her lack of a long-standing party affiliation, as she will be without clear authority in the coalition’s largest party. While her previous positions will have provided her with an in-depth understanding of Latvia-EU relations (very important given the country’s recent adoption of the Euro) and she was one of the better-rated members of the previous government, her influence in the coalition will still be very limited. Yet as parties have agreed not to amend the budget for 2014 (which would only have been possible in the summer), there is only very little room for manoeuvre for Straujuma and her government anyway.

Overall, the formation of the government appears to be a victory for the president (as well as his party, the Union of Greens and Farmers) and evidence that his unusually active approach paid off. Even though president Bērziņš initially rejected the idea of a purely technocratic government, a government under the leadership of quasi-technocrat Straujuma has several advantages for him. First and foremost, in a situation where the prime minister has less authority over the coalition parties, the president’s influence automatically increases. Furthermore, by not pushing for a purely technocratic government, the previous coalition parties remain in power and are not cut off from the spoils of office. Keeping a good relationship with all centre-right parties is instrumental for Bērziņš in securing his re-election. Last, the new government now includes Bērziņš’ own party whose votes are necessary to secure a majority in the assembly which increases the president’s leverage over the coalition.

Of course, the new coalition also has benefits for the other parties: Straujuma is a largely uncontroversial figure who will potentially mitigate some of the public dissatisfaction with the previous government’s policies which will be carried out until the general election in October 2014. At the same time, prominent party politicians can take a step back from the first line of politics while remaining in office (furthermore, in contrast to Dombrovskis III, they are now also more slightly adequately rewarded in terms of portfolios).

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Overall, Straujuma’s new government consists of 14 cabinet members (prime minister + 13 cabinet ministers), seven of which served in the Dombrovskis III cabinet (except for Straujuma all in the same positions). There are two non-partisan cabinet members, yet these are clearly linked to Unity and the National Alliance, respectively, and thus not the result of presidential intervention. The Reform Party of former president Valdis Zatlers is slightly underrepresented despite having the second largest seat share, yet take the high-profile ministries of foreign affairs, economics, and interior. In addition to prime minister Straujuma, there are four other female cabinet members (which is an increase by two compared to Dombrovskis III); the average age is 47.9 years.

government party seat share and portfolio allocation_straujuma 1

The new government holds 62 out of 100 seats in parliament.

Composition of Straujuma I
Prime Minister: Laimdota Straujuma (Unity, female, 63)*
Minister for Defence: Raimonds Vējonis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 48)
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Edgars Rinkēvičs (Reform Party, male, 40)*
Minister for Economics: Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis (Reform Party, male, 36)
Minister for Finance: Andris Vilks (Unity, male, 50)*
Minister for the Interior: Rihards Kozlovskis (Reform Party, male, 44)*
Minister for Education and Science: Ina Druviete (Unity, female, 55)
Minister for Culture: Dace Melbārde (independent [National Alliance], female,  42)*
Minister for Welfare: Uldis Augulis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 41)
Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development:  Einārs Cilinskis (National Alliance, male, 50)
Minister for Transport: Anrijs Matīss (independent [Unity], male, 40)*
Minister for Justice: Baiba Broka (National Alliance, female, 38)
Minister for Health: Ingrīda Circene (Unity, female, 57)*
Minister for Agriculture: Jānis Dūklavs (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 61)

(*= member of previous government; except for Laimdota Straujuma all with same portfolio)

Latvia – President Berzins and the difficulties of forming a new government

On 27 November, Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned from office taking the political responsibility for the collapse of a supermarket roof which killed 54 people. Since then, president Andris Bērziņš has played a surprisingly active role in forming a new government, yet until now with little success.

The resignation of Valdis Dombrovskis, who has headed three different cabinets since March 2009 (his most recent coalition of three-party centre-right parties had been in office since October 2011) [1], came as a surprise to many observers and was met with criticism from commentators and fellow members of government. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the tragedy some had blamed his government for loosening building regulations and thus being indirectly responsible for the tragedy. Dombrovskis’ justification for his resignation (“Latvia needs to have a government that will supported by the Saeima majority and deal with the current situation in the nation”), however, highlights another, likely more important factor for his resignation. Only two weeks earlier and following a number of conflicts within the coalition, Dombrovskis refused to dismiss a disgraced party member of his coalition partner VL-TB/LNNK (National Alliance) from the position as Justice Minister. While the the National Alliance’s other representative remained in cabinet, the coalition was effectively terminated and the government has been without a clear majority since.

Latvian president Andris Bērziņš | photo via wikimedia commons

President Bērziņš put pressure on parties to quickly form a new government, yet until now he appears to be a hindrance to the process himself. The Latvian Constitution leaves the president much leeway in appointing a prime minister, yet the established practice has been that the president plays a purely formal role in confirming the outcome of party negotiations. President Bērziņš has taken a different approach by becoming actively involved in the search of a new prime minister (and it is even rumored that it was him who put pressure on Dombrovskis to resign). All four centre-right parties in parliament (i.e. the three coalition parties + Bērziņš’ own ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ which together command 63% of seats) have vowed to work together in a new coalition government but have not started negotiations yet. Despite being the largest party in parliament, the left-wing ‘Harmony Centre’ is unlikely to be included in any coalition (both due to the policy distance and its identification with the country’s Russian minority) and the four centre-right parties thus present the only viable option for a majority government.

Dombrovskis’ ‘Unity’ Party has proposed three possible candidates who were all rejected by president Bērziņš on the basis that they were not the ‘strongest possible candidates’. He has also turned down the candidates of his own party and of the National Alliance, although no specific reasons were made public. On the other hand, both candidates suggested by the president – EU Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and speaker of parliament Solvita Aboltina – declined to take on the role. 

Bērziņš’ activism is not only interesting in so far as it deviates from established political practice, but also because his predecessor, Valdis Zatlers, failed to be re-elected after confronting the government about its refusal to lift the immunity of an MP accused of corruption (thus illustrating that indirectly elected presidents are very much agents of the assembly rather than independent actors). It is possible – but in now way confirmed – that Bērziņš is trying to forge a stronger cooperation between his ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ (which was part of Dombrovskis’ second cabinet from November 2010 to October 2011) and the other parties in order to ensure his own re-election in 2015.

The parties’ patience with the president is likewise noteworthy, yet the reasons seem to be more straightforward. First and foremost, the 2014 budget has already been passed meaning that the current government can still fulfill its duties. As Bērziņš appears to prefer a political rather than technocratic cabinet (although he has not outright rejected ‘Harmony Centre’s suggestion to form one), coalition parties also do not have to fear to be excluded from the spoils of office any time soon. Furthermore, elections to the European Parliament will take place in May and the next parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 2014. As all centre-right parties can be expected to fare worse than in previous elections and because amendments to the budget are not possible for the time being (meaning that there is no potential for pork barrels), parties are naturally not too eager to join a new government whose duty it would be to merely continue the increasingly unpopular policies of its predecessor.

In the short term, this situation plays in favour of the president and parties might eventually even be quite content to be able to leave the choice of successor for Dombrovskis to the president. Should the 2014 parliamentary elections produce an unclear majority situation, Bērziņš might again play a crucial role in assembling a new (centre-right) government. However, he still runs the risk of becoming too involved and being replaced with a candidate promising to be less active come re-election.


[1] Sikk, Allan (2011) Baltic Governments 1990-2011. http://www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~tjmsasi/baltgov.pdf

For further background on the Latvian political landscape in the wake of the supermarket tragedy see: Cianetti, Licia. 2013. ‘The Latvian government after the Riga supermarket tragedy has exposed deep divisions in the country’s political system’. LSE EUROPP Blog 10/12/2013.