EP elections in Latvia: the competition of political heavyweights and likely low voter activity

  • 2024-05-30
  • Kaspars Germanis

European Parliament (EP) elections in Latvia are traditionally a race of political heavyweights. This year among the candidates are former prime ministers and mayors of the capital Riga, and ex-ministers. On the opposite, citizens’ interest in these elections, compared to parliamentary and municipal elections, has been the lowest and it seems nothing is going to change this time as well.

In total, 271 candidates from 16 lists are applying for nine seats in the EP. Among them are local political stars such as Valdis Dombrovskis (New Unity), who is now Executive Vice President of the European Commission and European Commissioner of Trade, former mayors of Riga Martins Staķis (The Progressives) and Nils Usakovs (Social Democratic Party “Harmony”). Worth noting, Usakov’s and another current Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Andris Ameriks, the vice mayor of Riga during Usakov's time, immunity of MEP was under question because both are suspected of corruption in Latvia. However, the EP decided not to revoke it.

Nevertheless, there is no longer current MEP Tatjana Zdanoka (Latvian Russian Union), who has been known for years as a supporter of pro-Kremlin policies in the EP. The chance to run for EP disappeared when the Latvian Parliament adopted a law that people who were members of the Communist Party after January 13, 1991, do not have rights to participate not only in Latvian parliamentary and municipal but also in EP elections. It must be assumed that with the end of the Zdanoka era, the chances of the Russian Union being represented in the EP will also drastically decrease.

Why is work in the EP so popular among Latvian politicians? First of all, working in Brussels or Strasbourg is more relaxed. If in Latvia, especially when working in the government, there is considerable pressure from society, the media, and political competitors, then the EP, whose work is of less interest to Latvian citizens, is under less stress. Secondly, governments in Latvia usually change after about two years. Therefore, the work in the EP is more long-term, as the term of office of the MEP is five years. Third, some politicians who feel they have achieved “everything” in Latvia prefer to operate in “deeper waters”. Finally, it cannot be ruled out that salary and other benefits, which are higher in EP than in Latvia, play a role.

Therefore, if in the so-called “old EU member states”, party heavyweights and political stars are active in local politics, in Latvia they tend to run for the EP. 

Meanwhile, EP elections are traditionally the least attended among Latvian residents. If around 60% of Latvian citizens attend the parliamentarian elections, 33.53% will attend the 2019 EP elections. In several eastern regions of the country, activity was lower than 20%.

Although there is no information on how many Latvian citizens are going to go to the polls on June 8, likely that the turnout will not change significantly. People's skepticism about Latvian politics, as well as their lack of interest in the EP, will not encourage people to go to the elections. Moreover, now is just a little bit more than a month till the elections, but there is neither a significant election campaign nor enormous media interest. And if the sun shines on June 8, some voters will prefer the beach or gardening instead of voting.

The winners of the EP elections will be those politicians whose supporters will be the most active and will vote. Since the interest is low, some politicians could lose not because they do not have support but because their supporters will not participate in elections. Presumably, about six lists will win one to two seats. Among them will be the traditionally popular “Harmony”, National Unity, “The Progressives” and “New Unity”, which is at the center of several political scandals. One of them - the former Prime Minister Krisjanis Kariņs who for work purposes used expensive private flights. It is not excluded that the voters will support “New Unity”, but individually Kariņš will be written off. It is very likely that such parties as “Latvia First”, led by the so-called oligarch Ainars Slesers, who is not running, the Union of Greens and Farmers, as well as the political movement “For Stability”, which takes a restrained position in condemning Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, will also enter the EP. The EP elections will not play a significant role in Latvian politics, but they will show the strength of parties and politicians before more popular municipal and parliamentary elections.

Kaspars Germanis is a researcher at the Center for Geopolitical Studies in Riga