Politics of Latvia

The politics of Latvia takes place in a framework of a parliamentary representative democratic republic, whereby the Prime Minister is the head of government, and of a multi-party system. The President holds a primarily ceremonial role as Head of State. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and parliament, the Saeima. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

Political developments since independence

On March 19, 1991 the Supreme Council passed a law explicitly guaranteeing "equal rights to all nationalities and ethnic groups" and "guarantees to all permanent residents in the Republic regardless of their nationality, equal rights to work and wages." The law also prohibits "any activity directed toward nationality discrimination or the promotion of national superiority or hatred."

In autumn 1991 Latvia reimplemented significant portions of its 1922 constitution and in spring 1993 the government took a census to determine eligibility for citizenship. After almost three years of deliberations, Latvia finalized a citizenship and naturalization law in summer 1994.

In the 5-6 June 1993 elections, with a turnout of over 90%, eight of Latvia's 23 registered political parties passed the four percent threshold to enter parliament. The Popular Front, which spearheaded the drive for independence two years previously with a 75% majority in the last parliamentary elections in 1990, did not qualify for representation. The centrist Latvian Way party received a 33% plurality of votes and joined with the Farmer's Union to head a center-right wing coalition government.

Led by the opposition National Conservative Party, right-wing nationalists won a majority of the seats nationwide and also captured the Riga mayoralty in the 29 May 1994 municipal elections. OSCE and COE observers pronounced the elections free and fair, and turnout averaged about 60%. In February 1995, the Council of Europe granted Latvia membership.

With President Bill Clinton's assistance, on 30 April 1994 Latvia and Russia signed a troop withdrawal agreement. Russia withdrew its troops by 31 August 1994, but maintained several hundred technical specialists to staff an OSCE-monitored phased-array ABM radar station at Skrunda until 31 August, 1998.

The 30 September-1 October 1995 elections produced a deeply fragmented parliament with nine parties represented and the largest party commanding only 18 of 100 seats. Attempts to form right-of-center and left-wing governments failed; 7 weeks after the election, a broad but fractious coalition government of six of the nine parties was voted into office under Prime Minister Andris Šķēle, a nonpartisan businessman. The also-popular president, Guntis Ulmanis, had limited constitutional powers but played a key role in leading the various political forces to agree finally to this broad coalition. In June 1996, the Saeima re-elected Ulmanis to another 3-year term. In the summer of 1997, the daily newspaper "Diena" revealed that half the cabinet ministers and two-thirds of parliamentarians appeared to violate the 1996 anti-corruption law, which bars senior officials from holding positions in private business. Under pressure from Šķēle, several ministers subsequently resigned or were fired. However, after months of increasing hostility between Šķēle and leading coalition politicians, the coalition parties demanded--and received--the prime minister's resignation on 28 July. The new government was formed by the recent Minister of Economy Guntars Krasts. It included the same parties and mostly the same ministers as Šķēle's government. It pursued the same course of reform, albeit not as vigorously.

In the 1998 elections, the Latvian party structure began to consolidate with only six parties winning seats in the Saeima. Andris Šķēle's newly formed People's Party garnered a plurality with 24 seats. Though the election represented a victory for the center-right, personality conflicts and scandals within the two largest right of center parties–Latvian Way and the People's Party–prevented stable coalitions from forming. Two shaky governments under Vilis Krištopans and Andris Šķēle quickly collapsed in less than a year. In May 2000, a compromise candidate was found in the form of Andris Bērziņš, the Latvian Way mayor of Rīga. His four-party coalition government lasted till the next elections in 2002.

In 1999, the Saeima elected Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, a compromise candidate with no party affiliation, to the presidency. Though born in Rīga in 1937, she settled in Canada during the years of the Soviet occupation, becoming a well-respected academic in the subject of Latvian culture. Since her election, she has become one of the most popular political figures in Latvia.

Local elections in 2001 represented a victory for the left-of-center parties in several municipalities, including Rīga. A leftist coalition in the Rīga City Council elected Gundars Bojārs, a Social Democrat, to the office of mayor.

Between local elections in 2001 and Saeima elections in 2002, two new parties formed: the conservative New Era Party led by Einars Repše and Christian Democratic Latvia's First Party. Both of them promised to fight corruption and made that the most important issue in 2002 elections. Six parties were elected to Saiema in 2002 elections. New Era Party with 26 seats out of 100 became the largest party in the parliament. Several previously successful parties such as Latvian Way and the Social Democrats did not reach the 5% threshold of the popular vote needed to be in the parliament. This was mostly due to voters perceiving these parties as corrupt. After elections, Einars Repše formed a government consisting of his New Era Party and three other parties.

In 2003, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was reelected to the presidency for the second term, until 2007. On 20 September 2003, Latvia voted to join European Union in a referendum. Virtually all of major political parties and major Latvian-language media supported the 'YES' vote. Latvian government also spent significant amount of money for the 'YES' campagain. The 'NO' campaign lacked both funding and media access. Out of voters who participiated in the referendum, 66.9% of cast votes in favor of EU. The vote was largerly along the ethnic lines. It is estimated that 84% of ethnic Latvians voted 'YES', while 91% of ethnic Russians voted 'NO' [http://www.policy.lv/index.php?id=102756&lang=en] .

After the referendum, Repše's government started to fall apart and he eventually resigned in January 2004. A new government, led by Indulis Emsis, head of the conservative "Union of Greens and Farmers" (ZZS) was approved by the parliament in March 2004. The government is a coalition of ZZS, TP (People's party), and LPP (First Party); the coalition has only 46 out of 100 seats in Latvia's parliament, but was also supported by TSP, the leftist party of national harmony. After the Saeima did not accept the budget for 2005 proposed by the government of Indulis Emsis, the government resigned. On 2 December 2004, Aigars Kalvītis became the new Prime Minister and thus head of the government.

Citizenship and language issues

The current citizenship law was adopted in 1998 after much debate and pressure from Russia and European Union and supersedes a more restrictive law passed in 1994. In accordance with law, Latvian citizens are those who had Latvian citizenship prior to June 17, 1940, and their descendants. Those who settled in Latvia during Soviet occupation, with exception of those who did so subsequent to retirement from Soviet Army, or were employees, informers, agents or safehouse keepers of the KGB, or of the security services, intelligence services or other special services of some other foreign state [see Section 11., 5) and 6)

International organization participation

BIS, CBSS, CE, EAPC, EBRD, ECE, EU, FAO, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICC, ICRM, IDA, IFC, IFRCS, ILO, IMF, IMO, ITUC, Intelsat (nonsignatory user), Interpol, IOC, IOM (observer), ISO (correspondent), ITU, NATO, NSG, OAS (observer), OPCW, OSCE, PFP, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNIDO, UPU, WCO, WEU (associate partner), WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTO, WTrO (applicant)

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