Country Listing

Latvia Table of Contents


Political System

The current electoral system is based on that which existed in Latvia before its annexation by the Soviet Union. One hundred representatives are elected by all citizens at least eighteen years of age, on the basis of proportional representation, for a period of three years. The Saeima elects a board, consisting of a chairman, two deputies, and two secretaries. The chairman or a deputy acts as speaker of the legislature. By secret ballot, the Saeima also elects the president, who must be at least forty years of age and have an absolute majority of votes. The president then appoints the prime minister, who nominates the other cabinet ministers. The entire Cabinet of Ministers must resign if the Saeima votes to express no confidence in the prime minister.

The Saeima has ten permanent committees with a total of 100 positions, so every deputy may sit on one committee. There are five other committees with a total of thirty-four positions. Committee chairmen, elected by committee members, often belong to minority parties not represented in the Saeima's ruling coalition. Draft laws for consideration by the Saeima may be submitted by its committees, by no fewer than five representatives, by the Cabinet of Ministers, by the president, or, in rare instances, by one-tenth of all citizens eligible to vote.

The president is elected for a period of three years and may not serve for more than two consecutive terms. As head of state and head of the armed forces, the president implements the Saeima's decisions regarding the ratification of international treaties; appoints Latvia's representatives to foreign states and receives representatives of foreign states in Latvia; may declare war, in accordance with the Saeima's decisions; and appoints a commander in chief in time of war. The president has the right to convene extraordinary meetings of the Cabinet of Ministers, to return draft laws to the Saeima for reconsideration, and to propose the dissolution of the Saeima.

Latvia's judicial system, inherited from the Soviet regime, is being reorganized. There are regional, district, and administrative courts as well as a Supreme Court. Final appeals in criminal and civil cases are made to the Supreme Court, which sits in Riga.

Latvia's four provinces (Vidzeme, Latgale, Kurzeme, and Zemgale) are subdivided into twenty-six districts, seven municipalities, fifty-six towns, and thirty-seven urban settlements. The highest decision-making body at the local level of government is the council, elected directly by the locality's permanent population for five-year terms and consisting of fifteen to 120 members. Members elect a board, which serves as the council's executive organ and is headed by the council chairman. In May 1994, in their first local elections since regaining independence, Latvian citizens elected more than 3,500 representatives, most belonging to right-of-center, pro-Latvian-rights parties and organizations. Candidates from the Latvian National Independence Movement were the most successful, and those from organizations succeeding the once-dominant Communist Party of Latvia fared worst.

Current Politics

More than twenty political parties or coalitions contended for seats in the June 1993 general elections, including Latvia's Way (Latvijas Cels), the Popular Front of Latvia, the Latvian National Independence Movement, Harmony for Latvia, the Latvian Democratic Labor Party, the Latvian Farmers Union, the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party, the Green Party, and Ravnopraviye. Latvians who fled as refugees to the West during World War II were granted the right to vote, even if they had become citizens of other countries. Of the estimated 120,000 such émigrés, however, barely 10,000 had bothered to register by May 1993.

With 32.4 percent of the vote, Latvia's Way, a centrist coalition founded three months before the election, won the largest number of seats--thirty-six. It succeeded in uniting a wide range of prominent advocates of democratization, a free-market economy, and closer cooperation among the Baltic states. The Latvian National Independence Movement, which was further to the right on the political spectrum, won fifteen seats; the moderate-left Harmony for Latvia, which took a liberal stance toward the issue of citizenship, won thirteen seats; and the center-right Latvian Farmers Union won twelve seats. Four smaller groups--Ravnopraviye, the Fatherland and Freedom Union, the Christian Democratic Union, and the Democratic Center Party (subsequently renamed the Democratic Party)--won fewer than ten seats each. The Popular Front of Latvia, despite its large following before independence, fell short of the 4 percent threshold required for representation.

At the start of its first session in July 1993, the Saeima's major acts included election of Anatolijs Gorbunovs of Latvia's Way as its chairman, full restoration of the 1922 constitution, and election of a president. Three candidates ran for president: Gunars Meirovics of Latvia's Way, Aivars Jerumanis of the Christian Democratic Union, and Guntis Ulmanis of the Latvian Farmers Union. Ulmanis succeeded in gaining the necessary majority vote on the third ballot and was inaugurated as president on July 8, 1993. He appointed Valdis Birkavs, a leader of Latvia's Way, as prime minister and asked him to form a government. The Cabinet of Ministers approved by the Saeima on July 20, 1993, was a coalition of members of Latvia's Way, the Latvian Farmers Union, and the Christian Democratic Union.

In July 1994, as a result of a dispute regarding tariffs on agricultural imports, the Latvian Farmers Union withdrew from the ruling coalition, and the Birkavs government resigned. Andrejs Krastins, deputy chairman of the Saeima and chairman of the Latvian National Independence Movement, failed to form a new government. Then Maris Gailis of Latvia's Way engineered a coalition with two groups that emerged from a split in the Harmony for Latvia movement--the National Union of Economists, which advocates an expanded economic role for the state and greater concessions on citizenship rights for the Russians and other ethnic minorities, and Harmony for the People. In September the Gailis government, including Birkavs as foreign minister, was confirmed.

One of the most important issues facing the Saeima was citizenship. Proposals concerning a citizenship bill ranged from retaining the citizenship criteria used for the purposes of the 1993 general elections to granting automatic citizenship to all residents of Latvia. A citizenship bill was passed in June 1994, despite its controversial quota restricting naturalization to fewer than 2,000 people per year. Under heavy domestic and international pressure, however, the Saeima relented, and another citizenship bill, without the quota provision, was passed in July and signed into law by President Ulmanis in August. It requires that applicants have a minimum of five years of continuous residence (in contrast to a December 1991 draft law's sixteen-year residency requirement); a rudimentary know-ledge of the Latvian language, history, and constitution; and a legal source of income. Applicants must also take an oath of loyalty to Latvia and renounce any other citizenship.

Data as of January 1995

Country Listing

Latvia Table of Contents