Tag Archives: Raimonds Vejonis

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 – Defence Minister Raimonds Vējonis elected as new president

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.

latvian presidential election results_presidential-power

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.

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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/