Saeima Elections 2022: How it all happens

October 1 is another election day in Latvia. The country's democratic system is every bit as rigorous and complex as those in other countries with polling stations opening both at home and across the globe, and this will be the 14th time a parliament, or Saeima, has been elected since the country won its independence in 1918. Since the renewal of state independence in 1990, there have been eight parliamentary elections: in 1993, 1995, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2018.

But while the constitutionally-mandated process is a shining example of democracy in action, there are a few unusual and particularly Latvian variations on how 100 deputies are actually chosen for a four-year shift in Latvia's unicameral parliament, the Saeima. Here's how the whole thing works.

 

CANDIDATES

Candidates for Saeima elections must be members of a registered political party or alliance of parties. For the 14th Saeima elections, the submission of lists of candidates took place from the 80th to 60th day before the election day, that is from 13 July to 2 August, to the Central Election Commission (CVK), the body which oversees all elections in the country.

Candidates have to be Latvian citizens (dual citizens are also eligible) aged 21 or over. There are certain restrictions on allowing former Communist party members, Soviet functionaries, prisoners and mentally ill persons to stand.

Parties have to pay a security deposit of €1,400 along with the submission of their electoral list. The list must be submitted both electronically and in paper form. If the party fails to win at least 2% of the vote, it loses its deposit. If it does get 2% or more, it gets its deposit back. The move is designed to discourage 'vanity' runs for office, though it is a matter of opinion how effective a measure this really is.

Parties can field a maximum of 115 candidates. The number of each party on the ballot paper is drawn by lot to ensure it is random. Parties always covet the number 1 spot for obvious reasons.

For the 14th Saeima elections a total of 1,829 candidates from 19 different party lists will fight for 100 seats in the parliament. There were originally 1,832 candidates but three were declared invalid. For comparison, in 2018 there were 1,461 candidates and 16 party lists. Voters can familiarize themselves with the submitted candidate lists, pre-election programs and news about the candidates on the website  https://sv2022.cvk.lv .

For the 2022 election, 64% of candidates are male and 36% are female (in the 2018 election, 68% of candidates were male and 32% female and in 2014 67% of candidates were male and 33% female).

The average age of candidates in 2022 is 46.2 years (in 2018 it was 46.5 years). The youngest candidate is 21 years old and the oldest 92 years. 

The party lists include 3 American citizens and one each with citizenship of Australia, Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Lebanon, Lithuania and Germany. 

 

VOTING RIGHTS

All citizens of Latvia aged 18 and over are entitled to vote on election day. They need to take their passports with them to vote and receive a special stamp in it to confirm that they have voted.

Latvia's "non-citizens" – a legacy of the Soviet occupation years – are not entitled to vote in parliamentary elections, even if they have permanent resident status. However, they can gain the right to vote if they undergo a process of naturalization and become citizens.

In the elections of the Saeima, eligible voters may vote at polling stations in Latvia or abroad on the election day. A vote may be submitted for safe-keeping prior to elections at selected polling stations in Latvia, and there is the possibility to vote at home if a voter cannot arrive at the polling station for health reasons, cares for a sick person on the election day, or the voter is in custody. Voters abroad can take the opportunity to vote in advance by post. Voting in the Saeima elections is also organized for soldiers participating in international operations. Polling stations may also be established on ships sailing under the flag of Latvia.

An electronic online voter register will be used to register voters at polling stations in the 14th Saeima elections, which will make participation in elections more convenient to voters who have only an identity card (eID). In previous parliamentary elections, voters who had available only an eID card needed to receive a voter card at one of the territorial units of the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs before the elections. In order to ensure that each voter cast only one vote, participation in the elections was marked by a stamp on the passport or voter card, but this time around it will be replaced by a mark in the electronic online voter register.

Such an electronic online voter register was successfully used in municipal elections of 2021. The register will include all eligible voters who have the right to participate in the Saeima elections. At the polling station, the election commission employee will verify the voter's right to vote in the online register and note that the voter has voted. This will allow voters in the Saeima elections to vote at any polling station.

However, despite regular debate on the matter, Latvia does not currently offer electronic voting (e-voting) as is the practice in neighboring Estonia.

 

CONSTITUENCIES

Latvia operates a proportional representation system during elections. Nevertheless, the country is divided into five separate regional constituencies and the number of seats available in each constituency is based upon the number of registered voters each one contains. 

The five constituencies are: Rīga, Vidzeme, Latgale, Kurzeme, and Zemgale, and a certain number of members of the Saeima will be elected from each constituency. The number of members of the Saeima to be elected in the constituencies is determined by the Central Election Commission in proportion to the number of voters of the constituency, registered in the Register of Natural Persons four months before the election day.

The growth of Rīga in recent years has seen it gain more and more seats so for 2022 the distribution will be as follows: Rīga (36 seats), Vidzeme (26 seats), Latgale (13 seats), Zemgale (13 seats), and Kurzeme (12 seats). Back in the 5th Saeima elections, Rīga had just 24 seats.

Candidates must choose one of the constituencies only in which to stand.

The total size of the electorate is 1.54 million of Latvia's 1.9 million population.

 

CAMPAIGNING

The period of the pre-election campaign lasts from 120 days before the elections until the election day.

From the 30th day before the election day the placement of materials of pre-election campaign on television is prohibited.

On election day, and the day before election day, the placement of materials of pre-election campaigns on radio, public outdoor areas and indoor premises, publications, on the Internet and authorities and capital companies, in which more than 50 per cent of capital shares belong to the State or a municipality, is prohibited.

On the Internet (except for the website of the political parties and alliances of political parties) on election day and the day before the Election Day, paid pre-election campaigning is also prohibited.

On election day when polling stations are open campaigning is prohibited inside the polling station or within 50 meters from the entrance to the building in which the polling station is located.

Monitoring of pre-election campaigns is carried out (depending on the type of campaign) by the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, the National Electronic Mass Media Council, the State Police, and the Municipal Police. Transgressions can result in fines and other measures.

 

ELECTION DAY

On election day, October 1, 920 polling stations across all of Latvia (158 of them in Rīga) will be open between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

At selected polling stations, voters will be able to take part in "early voting" ahead of election day where their ballots will be kept securely then added to the main count on October 1.

Voters unable to come to the polling station for health reasons can apply in advance for "off-site" voting which involves an election official visiting them to receive the ballot.

Special arrangements are also made for military personnel serving overseas and for prisoners who retain the right to vote.

 

OVERSEAS VOTING

A total of 81 overseas polling stations have been created for the 14th Saeima elections, (the list of polling stations is available on the CVK website www.cvk.lv)

In 42 different countries, voters abroad will be able to vote in person on Election Day, October 1, at polling stations in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, France, Greece, Georgia, Estonia, India, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Israel, Japan, Canada, Kazakhstan, Russia, China, South Korea, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Moldova, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Finland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, Hungary, Uzbekistan, Germany, and Sweden.

On October 1, polling stations in foreign countries will be open for voters from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time, and not only Latvian citizens living in the respective country, but also those voters who have gone abroad on a short-term business trip or vacation are able to vote there.

Voters abroad can participate in Saeima elections also by voting by mail. It is possible to apply for postal voting from abroad until September 9.

Polling stations abroad are included as part of the Rīga constituency, therefore voters abroad may only vote for the lists of candidates registered in the Rīga constituency.

Voters usually residing abroad, but who will be in Latvia on election day, may vote at any polling station in Latvia.

 

VOTING

Voting involves a lot of paper, though thankfully not a lot of paperwork. After having their identity confirmed at a polling station, each voter is issued with a complete set of ballot papers containing all the candidates nominated for the constituency and a ballot envelope bearing the stamp of the relevant polling station commission - quite a bundle.

The voter chooses the party for which he or she wishes to vote.

Now comes perhaps the most unusual and intriguing feature of Latvian democracy. A voter does not necessarily have to mark a ballot paper at all – the list can be put in a sealed envelope and deposited in the ballot box and the vote is recorded for the party when the count takes place. 

However, the options to express one's will do not end there. The voter may also choose to put a “+” mark opposite the name of a candidate or candidates they particularly like on the party list and/or cross out the names of any candidates they don't like. This process effectively moves candidates "up" or "down" the party list, though of course it still only counts as one vote for one party.

Thanks to this, it is always fascinating to look at the results to see which candidates have won the love of the electorate and climbed up their party list to take a seat... and even more to see which are the unpopular figures who thought they were a dead cert for a seat but suddenly find themselves rock bottom of the list.

Either way the voter inserts the ballot paper containing the list of candidates for which he or she has chosen to vote into the envelope (in a private voting booth), and emerges to put the envelope into the public ballot box.

 

RESULTS

The vote count starts as soon as the polls close.

Parties winning at least 5% of the total vote (NOT 5% of the eligible electorate) will win at least one seat in parliament. The exact distribution of seats is determined by a fairly complex formula dependent upon how many parties cross the 5% threshold. 

Provisional results are published as they come in on the CVK's dedicated website. Usually by 3 or 4 a.m. about half of the results will be in, with the vast majority in by 6 a.m. An announcement of provisional results is usually made the day after the vote with the final results officially confirmed a week later in what is by then largely a formality. The CVK also dictates the date of the first sitting of the new Saeima.

 

FORMING A GOVERNMENT

With that all done, another process entirely begins as the parties elected size each other up and think about who they are prepared to cooperative with and who they are not. This does not always coincide with their pre-election promises in this regard. 

It is up to the President to nominate someone to try to form a government. The President may choose whoever he or she thinks has the best chance of forming a viable administration, so it does not necessarily have to be the leader of the party that has won the most seats – which is why foreign media reports about who has "won" the election can often prove to be a bit misleading. No single party has ever secured an outright majority on its own as a result of a Saeima election, and it is extremely unlikely to happen this time around.

In another particularly Latvian twist that often causes head-scratching in foreign observers, it is not unusual for a prime ministerial candidate to emerge from a party that didn't even do particularly well in the election. This is generally because they can then act as a broker between the larger rival parties. A good example is the current Prime Minister, Krišjānis Kariņš, who was nominated for the job despite heading the smallest party in the Saeima at the time with just eight seats. 

The President will usually give a candidate a fairly brief fixed period of a few days or a week in which to assemble a potential government. If the nominee cannot do so, the President will try someone else. This can involve days and even weeks of horse-trading among the parties, during which time the previous administration retains executive power in an interim capacity.

When the parties have come to agreement by drawing up and signing a coalition agreement, government declaration and government action plan, as well as outlining the distribution of ministerial portfolios, the new government is put to vote by the Saeima. A majority is required and if the motion passes, the government is up and running.

And then everyone will start wondering if the new government will last until the next Saeima elections in 2026...

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