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Latvia: Major Political Earthquake in Riga Elections

This Saturday’s snap local elections in the capital city of Latvia, Riga, turned out to be a major political earthquake, with centre-left Harmony (Saskaņa, S-S&D) and Honour to Serve Riga! (Gods Kalpot Rīgai!, GKR-S&D) losing their decade-long majority in the City Council. Conversely, the alliance between the liberal Development/For! (Attīstībai/Par!, AP-RE) and centre-left Progressives (Progresīvie, P→S&D) went on to win 18 of the 60 total seats in the chamber, the most of any single electoral list.

The snap elections were held due to the Latvian Parliament, the Saeima, in February of this year voted to suspend the City Council, the parliament of Riga, due to its inability to solve a crisis in the city’s waste handling system. The snap election was initially planned for 25 April but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read more about the development in our concise pre-election explainer here.

Despite the importance of this election—a third of the Latvian population was called to the polls—the election saw a record-low turnout of just 40.6%. Such a low figure is likely connected with the unprecedented decline of the centre-left party, Harmony, which has traditionally been backed largely by the Russian-speaking population. Harmony went from 32 at the last election in 2017 to 12 seats last Saturday (compared to the result of their single-list alliance with Honour to Serve Riga! in 2017). Such drop was largely contributed to by Nils Ušakovs, the former Mayor of Riga and Harmony chairman, in April 2019 being removed as Mayor of the city by the Latvian Government after almost ten years on the post amidst a corruption scandal, and therefore not appearing on the ballot this year.

Person voting in the Riga election // Photo by Mārtiņš Bruņenieks (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ušakovs, a Russian-speaker himself, enjoyed broad support from the Russian-speaking population, thus being a powerful figure given that 56% of Rigans speak Russian as their first language. With Ušakovs not on the ballot and weak showings in opinion polls over the past months, many traditional Harmony voters felt discouraged and disenfranchised, and therefore did not go to the polls, which may have contributed to Harmony’s major decline. Conversely, thereby benefiting other parties such as Development/For!Progressives and New Unity (Jaunā Vienotība, JV-EPP) that mainly base their support on the Latvian-speaking population.

On the other hand, the Development/For!Progressives list outdid the opinion polls and won more than every fourth vote with 26.2% of all votes; resulting in 18 seats in the council, of which seven is representing Development/For!, nine representing The Progressives and two members not affiliated to any party. New Unity, the party of current Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš also saw a large surge in their support and went from four to ten seats.

Already at this point has a tentative agreement betweenDevelopment/For!Progressives alliance, New Unity, the New Conservative Party (Jaunā konservatīvā partija, JKP→EPP), the NA/LRA electoral alliance been reached about forming a broad coalition with Development/For!Progressives’ mayoral candidate Mārtiņš Staķis as coalition leader and new Mayor. The details about the new local governmental coalition and its focuses are expected to fall into place over the next weeks.