14th Saeima elections: Can October vote buck the low turnout trend?

While everyone will focus on how many votes each party gets in the Saeima elections of October 1, almost as important will be the question of how many votes they do not get – how many people stay at home and choose not to exercise their democratic right to decide who governs the country.

Opinion polls over the last year have consistently shown that around 15 % of voters have no intention of turning out on election day. Added to that, around 25% of voters consistently describe themselves as undecided when it comes to party preference, so there is a good chance a portion of those voters will also end up making no choice at all.

Turnout has been on the wane for years now. In the immediate aftermath of renewed independence in the 1990s, voter turnout in Saeima elections was as high as 90 %. Since then, it has steadily declined. The 10th Saeima elections of 2010 saw turnout at 63 %. One year later in the 11th Saeima elections this dropped to 59 % and by the time the 12th Saeima elections took place in 2014 it was 58 %. For the 13th Saeima elections of 2018, it was a mere 54 % (in local government elections last year, only 34 % of voters turned out, though this was likely compounded by the Covid pandemic). 

Unless the trend is halted or reversed, there is a chance that parliamentary elections in Latvia could soon be decided by a minority of the electorate.

In any democracy this would be worrying, but in Latvia's system, the importance of turnout to ensure a parliament representative of the public will is, arguably, particularly important. In order to win seats in the Saeima, a party needs to secure at least 5% of the vote across the country as a whole. That is, 5% of votes cast, NOT 5% of the total electorate. So low turnout will tend to help smaller parties with limited but reliable support.

They may represent a tiny fraction of popular sentiment, but if their supporters turn out and a sufficient number of apathetic and indecisive voters stay at home, their chances of crossing the 5% threshold greatly increase. This seems to be supported by recent polls showing a large number of parties hovering around the 5% threshold. It is only a slight overstatement to say that if you don't vote, the power of your vote is, in effect, transferred to someone else who does.

The total size of the electorate is around 1.5 million of Latvia's 1.9 million population. So, if every eligible voter participated in the election, a party would need to secure about 75,000 votes to win some Saeima seats. If turnout is only 50 % or 750,000, the party needs to secure just 37,500 votes to claim the same number of seats. Thinking about it another way, it's a bit like the difference between getting everyone in Liepāja to vote for you or getting everyone in Rēzekne to vote for you.

Whether voter turnout does approach 50 % on October 1 remains to be seen. The received wisdom is that dramatic times do tend to push more people to the polls. With the war in Ukraine, the recovery from the Covid pandemic and a biting cost of living crisis all in people's minds, we might expect the downward turnout trend to halt or even reverse. On the other hand, if even such cataclysmic events cannot persuade people to go to the polling stations, it's hard to imagine what will.  

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