Latvia joined the EU as part of the major ten country expansion of 2004. It is the most recent country to join the Euro, joining on the 1st of January 2014, despite the Eurozone crisis.
Like its Baltic neighbours, Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia enjoyed a short period of independence from the Russian Empire in the inter-war period followed by occupation and incorporation into the USSR during World War II. Latvia would become independent with the end of the USSR in 1991.
Of the three Baltic states Latvia experienced the greatest influx of internal immigration. From the end of the Second World War to regaining independence in 1991, the ethnic Latvian population of Latvia went from 80% of the Latvian populace to 52%.
While Latvia has historically been home to large populations of ethnic Germans, Belarussians, Jews and other ethnic groups the largest ethnic minority group in Latvia has historically tended to be ethnic Russians. In 2011, the government of Latvia believed that the population of Latvia was 26.9% ethnically Russian, though independent estimates vary widely, with estimates as high as 42% available. Russians are particularly concentrated in the capital, Riga (officially reckoned to be 43% Russian) and in the South East of the country.
For understandable reasons, Latvians are extremely wary of Russians, at best. Latvia is a small country of only 2.2 million people, which borders the (geographically) largest country in the world. Latvia has spent by far and away most of its history, for the last few centuries, in Russian-dominated superstates. Recent events in the Ukraine have increased Latvian concerns about Russia.
Russian-speakers, therefore, are feared as a potential ‘fifth column’ by many Latvians. Latvia defines the Russian language as a foreign language. The Latvian government requires that schools teach at least 60% in Russian. After independence the new Latvian government did not allow those whose ancestors arrived in Latvia after June 1940 (predominantly Russians) automatic citizenship and Latvian citizenship has been contingent on knowledge of Latvian history and the Latvian language (though this has been eased due to EU pressure). A status of ‘non-citizens’ has been created for those unable to achieve Latvian citizenship and without other citizenship. Non-citizens have most of the rights of Latvian citizens, except the right to vote, to stand for office and usual passport entitlement (though non-citizens can travel on non-citizen passports). It is possible for non-citizens to naturalise their status and children of non-citizens may become Latvian citizens at their parents request (before 15) or at their own (between 15 and 17).
A majority of ethnic Russians are now Latvian citizens, but almost 300,000 people in Latvia, 13.5% of the population, hold the non-citizen status. Around 31.7% of ethnic Russians are currently non-citizens.
In 2012 a pro-Russian youth group used Latvia’s direct democracy rights to force a referendum on a constitutional amendment to make Russian an official language. Inevitably, the referendum failed 74.8% to 24.9% but the results demonstrate a total polarisation along ethnic lines, with support in different regions correlating almost exactly with the size of the Russian population.
Ethnic Russians tend to vote for pro-Russian parties which have tended to be systematically excluded from government.
Government in Latvia has historically been unstable. No Latvian government has lasted a full parliamentary term, and some have collapsed after only a few months. Around two years in office is a fairly standard term for a Latvian government.
Some parties in Latvia have been linked to powerful economic oligarchs, and corruption has been rather rife in Latvia. Until recently Latvia had no system of state funding for political parties, leaving parties often reliant on shady wealthy backers. Cynicism of political elites is amongst the worst in the European Union.
Latvian politics is extremely volatile. Elections are often won by parties that did not exist at the previous one, and after governing parties often quickly haemorrhage support. Registering a party in Latvia is relatively easy – only 200 signatures are required, and hence there is often a series of new parties available to choose from.
Latvia suffered immensely from the 2008-9 financial crisis. The country saw its GDP decline by 25% over eight fiscal quarters. Latvian unemployment peaked at over 20%, though the country has experienced a rapid recovery, unemployment is now down to 11.9%. This is still relatively high but way down from peak level. Similarly, the country reported relatively strong growth of 4.1% in 2013.
The economic crisis led to an EU=IMF bailout contingent upon ‘shock therapy’, including big cuts to public sector wages (28% for teachers, nurses and police), and spending in general. Latvia saw its population decline by 7% as young people left Latvia for wealthier states.
The financial crisis led to mass protests against the ruling political elite. Latvia’s President, Valdis Zatlers, made a speech in May 2011 in which he accused politicians of being soft on corruption and announced the first ever referendum on dissolution of the Latvian parliament and fresh elections (a unique constitutional power, a referendum initiating early elections can be initiated by either the, usually ceremonial, presidency, or 10% of voters).
The new government, formed after the resulting affirmative in the referendum saw the formation of an anti-oligarchs coalition.
Latvia was rocked in November 2013 when the roof of a supermarket in Riga collapsed, killing 54 (including 3 rescue workers) and injuring a further 41. This was the worst disaster in Latvia in more than sixty years. Controversy was unleashed because of reports that the store did not provide sufficient safety training for employees, had left fire escapes blocked, and due to poor treatment of the employees, forcing them to work long hours for minimum wage, and refusing them breaks without permission. The company was accused of violating building standards, and of having poor plans for building evacuations, but there was an implication of corruption and government failure in terms of inspection of the supermarket. The resulting outrage led to protests. Three days of national mourning were declared, and the government resigned.
A new national unity government, composed of all parties except the pro-Russian Harmony Centre, was formed in January 2014, headed by Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma. Straujama is the first Latvian woman to take the position of PM.
Latvia will elect 8 MEPs, down one from the Lisbon redistribution.
Latvia uses an open-list PR system in which voters vote for a party. Parties which win more than 5% of the vote are assigned seats broadly in proportion to their percentage of the vote.
Once they have voted for a party, voters have the choice to show their approval or disapproval of individual candidates on the party list. They express this by putting a ‘+’ next to candidates they approve of and striking through candidates that they disapprove of. A candidate’s support is measured as the number of + votes minus the number of times their name has been struck through. Thus three statuses are possible, approval, disapproval or neutral and Latvian open-list voting is unique in European parliament elections for allowing voters to cast a negative vote against a candidate. This works to discourage polarising candidates.
Seats are assigned to the best performing candidates in each party list. So if a party wins three seats then the best three performing candidates win seats.
2009 Election Result
Other notable parties in this election:
Harmony Centre is likely to be the big winner of the election, and win 3, perhaps even 4 seats. Unity is almost certain to come second. The National Alliance and Union of Greens and Farmers can both relatively certainly count on a seat each. Reform and For Latvia from the Heart could potentially win seats.