Tag Archives: Latvia

Latvia – The President’s legislative initiative on granting citizenship to new-borns is rejected by the Saeima

Latvia is a parliamentary republic with a 100-member unicameral parliament (Saeima), which is elected under a proportional system for a four-year period.

The Saeima elects the President by a secret ballot. To be elected, candidates must win at least fifty-one votes. The President serves for a term of four years and is limited to two consecutive terms. A presidential candidate must be a citizen of Latvia and must be at least forty years old. A person with dual citizenship may not be elected President. The functions of the President are determined by the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia.

The main role of the President is to promote the prosperity of Latvia and its inhabitants.

The President is the Head of State, nominating the Prime Minister, representing Latvia internationally, appointing the diplomatic representatives of Latvia, and receiving foreign representatives to Latvia. The President has the right to convene, to preside over extraordinary meetings of the Cabinet of Ministers, and to determine the agenda of such meetings.

The Head of State is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

In the event that the President is sick, on vacation or resigns from office, the Chairperson of the Saeima assumes the duties of the President.

The current President of the Republic of Latvia is H.E. Mr Raimonds Vējonis. The President took office on July 8, 2015. President Vējonis used to be a member of the Green Party, which is part of the Union of Greens and Farmers. The President has suspended his party membership.

Legislative Power

One of the most powerful functions of the President is the right to initiate legislation, proclaim or veto laws passed by the Saeima and grant clemency. The President proclaims bills passed by the Saeima no earlier than the tenth day after the bill has been adopted and no later than the twenty-first day. A law comes into force fourteen days after its proclamation unless a different term has been specified in the law. The President may use the suspended veto power within ten days of the adoption of a law by the Saeima by means of a written and reasoned request to the Chairperson of the Saeima, requiring the law to be reconsidered. If the Saeima overrides the law, the President then may not raise objections a second time. The President has the right to suspend the proclamation of a law for a period of two months if so requested by not less than one-third of the members of the Saeima. This right may be exercised by the President, or by one-third of the members of the Saeima, within ten days of the adoption of the law by the Saeima. The law thus suspended shall be put to a national referendum if so requested by not less than one-tenth of the electorate. If no such request is received during the two-month period, the law shall then be proclaimed after the expiration of such period. A national referendum shall not take place, however, if the Saeima again votes on the law and not less than three-quarters of all members of the Saeima vote for the adoption of the law. Should the Saeima, by not less than a two-thirds majority vote, determine a law to be urgent, the President may not use suspended veto rights and request reconsideration of such law, it may not be submitted to national referendum, and the adopted law shall be proclaimed no later than the third day after the President has received it.

The President is not politically responsible[1]. The President can propose the dissolution of the Saeima. Following this proposal, a national referendum shall be held. In such case, the President shall determine the agenda of the Saeima. However, if in the referendum more than half of the votes are cast against the dissolution of the Saeima, then the President shall be deemed to be removed from office.

The President’s legislative initiative on granting citizenship to new-borns

In this post, I would like to focus on a latest legislative initiative and political leadership of the President to grant citizenship to all new-borns in Latvia regardless of whether their parents are ‘non-citizens’.

In November 2016, the President initiated the idea, which received a cautious reaction from parties in the coalition government. For a year the President, using a form of network governance, discussed the issue with experts, representatives of different groups in politics and society, such as the Ombudsman, the Ministry of Interior, marketing and public opinion research centres, and academics.

The President’s decision is based on the fact, that granting non-citizens status to new-borns is an inheritance left by the former USSR and should not be maintained for more than 25 years after the restoration of independence. The President emphasizes that Latvia is a modern and democratic European country which needs to do everything to strengthen and consolidate its people. In mid-September the President submitted the legislative initiative to the Saeima, stating that it is a symbolic step which weakens the cleavage between different groups of Latvian society. The President points out that this regulation would apply to approximately 50 to 80 new-borns a year and that in 2016 non-citizen status was granted to 52 children. According to the data from the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs, up to October 2017 non-citizen status had been granted to 30 children. According to the report of Arnis Kaktiņš, the executive director of public opinion centre SKDS, in May 76% of the public support the idea that children from non-citizens born in Latvia would automatically become citizens of Latvia at the time of their birth unless the parents of the child chose the citizenship of another country. The draft law complies with Latvia’s international commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If the parents fail to ensure the right on behalf of their children, it should be done by the state.

However, due to the coalition agreement, and after the cursory debates with two speakers at the end of September, the Saeima rejected the President’s proposal. A total of 39 of the 100 members of the Saeima voted to move the proposal forward, 38 voted against and 14 chose to abstain. The opposition supported the initiative, but it was not sufficient to move the legislative process forward, which requires support from half of the Saeima.

The President expressed the hope that the Saeima’s vote would only postpone the decision for a while and that there will be another opportunity to vote on the topic in the future.

Reference:

[1] Dišlers K. Latvijas valsts varas orgāni un viņu funkcijas. Rīga: TNA, 2004., page 137.

Latvia – Party conflict and presidential initiative in government formation

ON 11 February 2016, the Latvian parliament voted in a new government under the leadership of Maris Kučinskis. Over the last years, I have written about Latvian president Andris Berzins’ activism in government formation on several occasions (see my previous posts on Latvia). Today’s blog post discusses the process of formation of the most recent government as well as the president’s role. While it differs from previous posts in so far as with Raimonds Vējonis there is a new president, there are some interesting similarities in the president’s response to party tactics and the preference for a prominent position of his (former) party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZSS).

President Raimonds Vējonis (right) announces nomination of Maris Kučinskis (left) as candidate for Prime Minister | image via president.lv

President Raimonds Vējonis (right) announces nomination of Maris Kučinskis (left) as candidate for Prime Minister | image via president.lv

After heading two Latvian governments since the beginning of 2014, Prime Minister Lajmdota Straujuma (Unity) resigned from office on 7 December 2015 after. A decrease of support for her leadership among parties and potential government reshuffle had been rumoured since late October following her dismissal of non-partisan transport minister Anrijs Matiss (and failure to quickly reappoint a successor), but intensified in the week preceding her resignation in conjunction with discussions about the 2016 budget and the upcoming congress of her Unity party. President Raimonds Vējonis was clearly dismayed by the developments and openly criticised government parties for failing to work to together better and avoid a collapse of the government.

Immediately after Straujuma’s resignation, parties and media began to speculate about potential successors. Although president Vējonis met with all parties to discuss proposals for the new government, it was universally acknowledged that Unity as the largest coalition party would lead the next government (the social-democratic Harmony Centre party holds the largest share of seats parliament, yet it is routinely shunned by other parties due to its affiliation with the sizeable ethnic Russian minority in the country). Even though Unity chairwoman Solvita Āboltiņa was part of her party’s delegation to the talks with the president and had even suggest herself as the new prime minister weeks before Straujuma’s eventual resignation, it soon became clear that she lacked sufficient support among Unity’s previous coalition partners. Both the National Alliance and – more significantly – the ‘Greens and Farmers Union’ (ZSS), which is not only the second largest coalition party but also the former party of president Vējonis, signalled that they would not be happy with Āboltiņa as prime minister. Thus, her party colleague, interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis – who had also been endorsed by Straujuma as a potential successor – emerged as Unity’s new potential candidate. However, as divisions within Unity widened, Kozlovskis announced only two days later that he would not be available for the role. Tensions between coalition parties increased when Unity refrained from offering any other candidates for prime minister except Āboltiņa (albeit only unofficially) and National Alliance and ZSS repeated their opposition to a government led by the Unity chairwoman.

Towards the end of December, particularly the ZSS was able to maneouvre itself into an advantageous position as it announced that it would not be in a coalition with either of the two smaller opposition parties, ‘Latvia from the heart’ and ‘Latvian Association of Region’. Either one could have replaced the National Alliance in the coalition and increased the ZSS share of portfolios. However, the support of both would have been needed to form a coalition of Unity and National Alliance without the ZSS. Furthermore, The fact that the ZSS had a former co-partisan in the presidential office meant that they could be relatively sure to be included in the new government. Although Vējonis refrained from openly taking sides, he publicly criticised Unity for failing to propose a(n agreeable) candidate for PM. Eventually, ZSS even announced to present its own candidate by late December to put pressure on Unity which responded by formally proposing Āboltiņa. After the ZSS eventually away off from formally proposing a candidate and merely flouted two names and Unity once again failed to agree on a potential candidate in addition to Āboltiņa, president Vējonis eventually announced that he would approach potential candidates himself in the new year.

The first candidates – finance minister Janis Reirs from Unity and Mayor of Valmiera, Janis Baiks (affiliated with Unity via a local party) – both declined to be nominated and other potential Unity candidates were unequivocally opposed by both ZSS and the National Alliance. Although Vējonis met with another potential Unity candidate, he eventually nominated ZSS’s nominee Maris Kučinskis on 13 January 2016, disregarding any potential opposition from Unity regarding this candidacy. The remainder of the government formation process can be described as relatively ‘uneventful’ with regard to negotiations between parties and the president’s involvement. However, the latter was largely predicated by the fact that Vējonis was hospitalised with a heart condition and operated on shortly after announcing Kučinskis’ nomination. The government then passed its vote of investiture in parliament on 11 February 2016.

The pattern of involvement by president Vējonis is quite similar to cabinet formation under his predecessor. Here, too, parties disagreed on the candidates for prime minister and/or the choice of potential (additional) coalition partners until the president took the initiative and rejected all candidates formally proposed by parties (which also tended to lack support among other potential coalition parties) and then approaching candidates on his own initiative. Overall, however, Vējonis appears to have been less active, leaving parties more leeway (yet not necessarily more time) in proposing candidates and sorting out their internal differences before taking the initiative himself. Furthermore, although Vējonis would have been in a position to force a cabinet under the leadership by his own ZSS (aided by the party’s generally advantageous position; see above), he gave Unity a second chance after the nomination of Āboltiņa failed to garner any support from the ZSS and the National Alliance. This leads to the question of whether the president is actually necessary/desirable in situations like these and if these were not better solved by parties alone. In this instance, a strongly partisan president (irrespective of party affiliation) might well have significantly delayed the formation of a government by nominating candidates without support from other parties. Vējonis tactics of waiting for the field of candidates to thin out naturally, gauge parties’ support for the various nominees and only take the initiative when deadlock likely saved Latvia a further month of fruitless negotiations. Furthermore, by maintaining the current coalition which elected him last year, his activism will likely not result in a significant decrease of support come the next presidential elections.

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The composition of new Latvian government is available at: whogoverns.eu

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 passes vote of confidence

Following the parliamentary elections in October, which saw the ruling centre-right coalition confirmed in office, the Latvian parliament passed a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma last week. As the government consists of the same party coalition as before, the changes to the line-up have been small and no major policy changes can be expected. The renewed inclusion of the Union of Greens and Farmers in the coalition makes a re-election of president Berzins likely.

Latvian president Andris Berzins and Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma | photo via wikimedia commons

Latvian president Andris Berzins and Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma | photo via wikimedia commons

Latvian president Andris Berzins nominated Prime Minister Straujuma to head the next government less than a week after the election. The continuation of the coalition between her “Unity” party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (Berzin’s old party) and the National Alliance was the only viable option to form a government. Given the prevalence of centre-right parties and strong russophile connection of the social-democratic ‘Harmony’, the latter had no chance of being included despite winning the most seats.

Despite this constellation and some more resources to distribute (Unity had absorbed the ‘Reform Party’ founded by former president Valdis Zatlers which previously held 3 portfolios), the coalition talks experienced several deadlocks which prompted president Berzins to publicly announce deadlines by which a conclusion should be reached. The ministry for Environment Protection and Regional Development Ministry triggered one of the larger battles between parties during the coalition negotiations with both the Union of Greens and Farmers and the National Alliance (which, too, is reliant on voters ins more rural regions and held the ministry in the last government) keen to claim it. In the end, the National Alliance was successful yet had to accept the Union of Greens and Farmers’ board chairman as deputy minister. Furthermore, the Union of Greens and Farmers were given the Health Ministry as well as the post of parliament speaker which was previously held by Unity leader Solvita Aboltina.

Overall, only modest policy change can be expected from the government. The fact that Latvia will take over the presidency of the EU for the first half of 2015 means that some domestic reforms will be put on hold and the opposition, too, has little interest in exposing the government to criticism during this time of international (or at least European) focus on the country. A factor to watch remains the government’s policy with regard to same-sex partnerships. In 2005 parliament passed a bill that defined marriage as being between two people of the opposite sex and a draft for a new bill is currently in parliament. Yet two days after the government received approval by parliament, foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics came out as gay (receiving words of encouragement mostly from his foreign rather than domestic colleagues) and called for a framework that allowed all kinds of partnerships.

Last, the renewed inclusion of the Union of Greens and Farmers as well as their now more prominent position in government (it only entered the coalition earlier this year when Straujuma was first elected Prime Minister due to pressure by president Berzins), appears to have secured his Berzins re-election in the next presidential elections (2015).

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 Composition of Straujuma II

Straujuma 2 composition

Prime Minister: Laimdota Straujuma (Unity)*
Minister for Defence: Raimonds Vējonis (Union of Greens and Farmers)*
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Edgars Rinkēvičs (Unity)*
Minister for Economics: Dana Reizniece-Ozola (Union of Greens and Farmers)
Minister for Finance Jānis Reirs (Unity)
Minister for the Interior: Rihards Kozlovskis (Unity)*
Minister for Education and Science: Mārīte Seila (independent; nominated by Unity)
Minister for Culture: Dace Melbārde (National Alliance)*
Minister for Welfare: Uldis Augulis (Union of Greens and Farmers)*
Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development: Kaspars Gerhards (National Alliance)
Minister for Transport: Anrijs Matīss (Unity)*
Minister for Justice: Dzintars Rasnačs (National Alliance)
Minister for Health: Guntis Belēvičs (Union of Greens and Farmers)
Minister for Agriculture: Jānis Dūklavs (Union of Greens and Farmers)*

* Member of previous government

Presidents in the Baltic states and their activism in foreign & defence policy

The crisis in Ukraine has led to a an increased focus of media attention on the Baltic states and their geopolitical position vis-a-vis Russia. Interestingly. the presidents of these states – Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Andris Bērziņš (Latvia) and Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia) – have recently taken the lead in demanding greater military protection and other guarantees for their countries. Hereby, their activism cannot be explained by their formal prerogatives in foreign policy and defence (which are not only limited but also vary between countries). Rather, the reason for their recent public engagement can be seen in a combination of factors specific to the political situation in each country.

Presidents Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Bērziņš (Latvia), and Ilves (Estonia) and NATO General Secretary Rasmussen during a visit to Camp Adazi in Latvia | photo via wikimedia commons

In line with international convention the constitutions of all Baltic States define presidents as the countries’ highest representatives in foreign relations and charge them with appointing and recalling diplomats. While these stipulations are comparatively vague, they generally do not give presidents much room for discretionary decision-making. Only the Lithuanian president is vested with the power to ‘decide on basic matters of foreign policy’ and conduct foreign policy together with the government, whereas in Latvia and Estonia this is left to the government. The Lithuanian and Latvian president are also formally Commander-in-Chief (the Estonian president is ‘Supreme Commander’ which recent constitutional changes have transformed into a purely ceremonial role) and constitutions stipulate a number of relatively vague ‘reserve rights’ in case of an armed attack on the country.

Of course, one also needs to take into account presidents’ general position in the polity. Hereby, the indirectly elected president of Estonia is the least powerful and has become a merely ceremonial head of state since the start of Ilves’ presidency. The president of Latvia is also elected by parliament yet possesses a few more prerogatives – particularly in legislation and government formation – than his Estonian counterpart. The Lithuanian presidency is generally the most powerful among the three Baltic states. This is not only due to its independent popular mandate but also because office-holders (particular incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite) have been able to extend their powers informally by interpreting ambiguous constitutional stipulations in their favour.

Nevertheless, these differences and similarities in formal prerogatives alone cannot quite explain why all three presidents are currently so active (at least publicly) with regards to foreign and defence policy. Rather, the explanation appears to lie in current political development in all countries.

Estonia only recently inaugurated a new government under the leadership of 34-year old Taavi Rõivas who yet has to find himself in the position of Prime Minister and despite taking over the leadership of his party still lacks political authority. President Ilves on the other hand previously served as an ambassador and Foreign Minister and has build up a reputation as an international expert on cyber-security, so that he can claim greater authority on the matter.

In Latvia, president Bērziņš was first publicly criticised for not returning quickly from his holiday to call and chair a meeting of the National Security Council after the crisis in Ukraine broke. However, since then he has also repeatedly voiced the need for greater military protection for Latvia and his approval ratings have improved. His actions therefore appear to be driven by public demand. This might appear counter-intuitive for an indirectly elected president, yet may actually improve his weight vis-a-vis the government whose new Prime Minister who – similar to Rõivas in Estonia – still lacks authority.

While formally vested with the most powers in foreign policy and defence, the main reason for Dalia Grybauskaite’s activism is the fact that she is currently running for re-election. After she already accused the Russian government of orchestrating a smear campaign against her earlier this year, her activism in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis could help her to once again win the elections without having to enter a run-off. Several representatives of government parties have also recently been criticised for defending Russia’s actions towards Ukraine. For Grybauskaite (who is in cohabitation with the government) this creates another opportunity to strengthen her position vis-a-vis the cabinet.

In sum, developments specific to every rather than constitutional powers can explain the fact that currently all Baltic presidents have chosen to play a more exposed role. Also, irrespective of how strongly they call for further military guarantees for their countries, they are also in the advantageous position that they do not have to ‘deliver’ – government and parliament are still the institutions that are eventually required and responsible for implementing any policy.

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.