A Letter From… Latvia! 

 

This year Latvia celebrated 15 years since it had joined the European Union back in 2004. While many experts and opinion-makers are still discussing whether Latvians feel the connection with Europe and have a solid understanding of the processes taking place in Brussels and their influence on Latvia, one thing is quite clear – Latvians do care about Europe’s future. More people took to the polling stations this year compared to the last European elections. Though the difference is only 3% (in 2014 the turnout was 30.24% and in 2019 the turnout is 33.6%), it generally mirrors the wider European increase in voter turnout.

 

In order to fully understand the European campaign’s setup in Latvia, one needs to remember that the European elections this year came only 7 months after general elections. Back in October 2018, three new political parties gained great results and became winners in national elections: the liberal alliance Attīstībai/Par! (AP!), the New Conservative Party (JKP) and the populist party Who owns the state? (KPV LV).  Thus, the European elections were a test: would the new parties succeed again in challenging the old traditional center-right New Unity (JV) and National Alliance (NA)?

 

The only “new kid on the block” succeeding in this test is the liberal alliance AP, that secured one seat (12,6%) in the European Parliament for its leader Ivars Ijabs, a political scientist and associate professor of the University of Latvia. The other new parties failed to gain even 5% support for their lists and leaders. The rest of Latvia’s eight seats in the European Parliament were divided up among the usual suspects: 2 mandates for the New Unity with European Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis leading their list; 2 mandates for the National Alliance; 1 mandate for the Latvia’s Russian Alliance (LKS); and 2 mandates for the social-democratic party Harmony (SA).

 

Beside the new vs. old paradigm, the other big topic in this campaign was about leaders of the Harmony list, namely the suspended Riga Mayor Nils Ušakovs and ex-Vice Mayor Andris Ameriks. Nils Ušakovs served as Riga City Mayor for 10 years until he got suspended by the Environmental Protection and Regional Development Minister Juris Pūce (Development/For!) this April. His ally and number two on the European election list – Vice Mayor Andris Ameriks – stepped down himself amid a fraud investigation. After the suspension, police searched Ušakovs’ office and house. Many see their decision to run for the Euopean election as a bid for impunity. Therefore, many opponents campaigned about this issue, arguing that the infamous duo ought to stay in Latvia and face the charges.

 

A peculiar detail – Ušakovs himself has not participated in a single debate or interview, the party even used the image of PES leader Frans Timmermans on their posters instead.

 

The dramatic European campaign was followed by dramatic mishaps of the voting system itself. The official European Election Day in Latvia was May 25. During these elections, however, for the first time you could cast your vote earlier, already on May 22 – 24. During these days, one could do so in any electoral districts as opposed to May 25, when one could vote only in their registered districts. Many thousands wanted to use this opportunity but the new system could not cope with such high demand and collapsed, causing difficulties with casting votes on May 23. This raised many questions and there is a Parliamentary inquiry into this issue under way.

 

The 2019 European Parliament elections have a bittersweet taste: on the one hand, we experienced an increase in voter turnout and solid results for the pro-European parties; on the other hand failure of the responsible institutions to execute modern elections mean that we still have many things to work on.

 

 

Jelena Jesajana

Secretary General of Latvijas Attīstībai/Par!.