27/05/2011 - D-7
On 16th March last outgoing President of the Republic Valdis Zatlers announced that he was running for office again as Head of State. Some days later on 23rd March Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis (Unity, V) gave him his support. The Head of State consulted all of the Parliamentary groups of the Saeima (the only chamber in Parliament) at the beginning of May. He now has the support in the presidential election that will take place on 2nd June next of the majority group Unity (33 MPs) and the National Union that comprises "All for Latvia (VL) led by Ratvis Dzintars and the Fatherland Union (TB/LNNK) led by Roberts Zile (7 Mps). Valdis Zatlers will be running against Andris Berzins, chair of the Latvijas Unibanka, appointed by 5 MPs of the Union of Latvian Greens and Farmers' Party (ZZS), chaired by Augusts Brigmanis, which has a total of 22 MPs.
The Presidential Seat
The Latvian Head of State is elected for a four year term in office (renewable once) by the absolute majority of the 100 members of the Saeima who vote in a secret ballot. The post is open to any Latvian aged at least 40 on condition he has no other nationality. Candidates must announce that they are going to run 50 days at the earliest and 45 days at the latest before the end of the mandate of the Head of State in office; this year that meant between 19th and 24th May.
If none of the candidates wins the 51 votes necessary for his election in two rounds another presidential election is organised two weeks later. Candidates then have five days to come forward. If none of them wins the absolute majority again, a further election in organised.
The Latvian President represents the State internationally, ratifies international treaties, appoints the country's diplomatic representatives and accredits the foreign diplomatic representatives. He is the head of the country's armed forces, leads the National Security Council and holds a right to amnesty.
The President of the Republic can put forward laws as well as call a referendum on the dissolution of the Saeima. If the majority of the electorate vote in favour the Parliament is dissolved and new general elections are organised in the 2 months that follow this. However if more than half of the electorate vote against dissolution the President of the Republic must resign from office and the Saeima elects his successor for a term that matches the time left for the President in office to end his mandate. On the request of at least half of the MPs the Head of State can be impeached by Parliament during a closed session by a 2/3 majority at least of its members. In this event the Saeima immediately elects a new President.
The Electoral Campaign
On 26th April last outgoing President Valdis Zatlers gave a speech during a conference at the University of Latvia entitled "A Strategic, Intelligent State, a Vision of Latvia's Future".
The Head of State set the country four goals to achieve over the next four years: the launch of structural reform, an improvement in employment and the business climate, regional development and the preparation for the adoption of the euro as its currency.
"We have to bring down administrative barriers on investments. The simplification of administrative procedures would also reduce the risk of corruption;" stressed Valdis Zatlers who said he wanted to create a new institution "the Council for Fiscal Discipline". On institutional mattes he said he wanted to revise the Constitution so that Parliament could vote against the government in office on condition however that it put a new government forward.
The Head of State also said he want to extend dual nationality (for citizens of countries allied to Latvia, NATO, EU or EFTA members) and to grant Latvian nationality to any child born after 21st August 1991, the day the country recovered its independence. Dual nationality has been prohibited in Latvia since 1995. "The country's interests must not be linked to ethnic interests," declared Valdis Zatlers, referring implicitly to ever present, justified concerns over Russian interference in national political life.
"I see demography as a major challenge" declared the President finally, deploring the decline in the number of births, the ageing population and Latvian emigration.
Former Presidents of the Republic Guntis Ulmanis (1993-1999) and Vaira Vike-Freiberga (1999-2007) provided their support to the outgoing Head of State. "A person who has four years of experience has obviously an advantage over another candidate," declared Vaira Vike-Freiberga. "I believe that the outgoing President of the Republic is the right person in the right place and I shall vote for him in the next election," said Guntis Ulmanis, member of For a Good Latvia that rallies the People's Party (TP) and Latvia's First-Latvia's Way (LPP-LC).
Experience is also the quality put forward by Sandra Kalniete (V), former European Commissioner and former Foreign Minister who also spoke in support of the outgoing Head of State. "If Valdis Zatlers wins the election he will have to work actively to change the Constitution so that Latvia can join the ranks of democracies in which the President of the Republic is elected by the people," she declared.
The leader of All for Latvia/Union for the Fatherland and Freedom, Roberts Zile explained on 12th May that he supported Valdis Zatlers because he wanted to avoid political instability in the country and that he did not want Harmony Centre (the main opposition party led by Janis Urbanovics with 29 MPs) to increase its sphere of influence. On 2nd June this party said that it would support the candidate that "would guarantee it a place in government."
Appointed by 5 MPs of the Latvian Greens and Farmers' Union, it is possible that Andris Berzins will not win the votes of all of the MPs in this party. Indeed because there was no unanimous agreement about his candidature within the group, MPs of the Latvian Greens and Farmers' Union can vote for the candidate of their choice.
The awesome challenge of universal suffrage
Outgoing President Valdis Zatlers has said he supports the election of the President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage and said he wanted to launch debate on this. In his opinion the people's vote would make the election fairer and more transparent. Prime Minister Dombrovskis has also said something along these lines. According to polls nearly three-quarters of Latvians (77%) are in favour of the election of the Head of State by direct universal suffrage.
Former President of the Constitutional Court Aivars Endzins stressed that the appointment of the President of the Republic by the population would not solve Latvia's problems. Ivars Ijabs, professor of political science at the University of Latvia warned of the dangers of a change like this. In his opinion civil society is too weak to oppose a possible authoritarian use of power by the President of the Republic.
Solvita Aboltina (V), She is Speaker of Saeima suggested increasing the number of parliamentary votes necessary to be elected to the supreme office and creating a public council that would assess candidates in the presidential election. She quoted the example of Rolandas Paksas (former President of the Republic of Lithuania who was impeached on 6th April 2004 by parliament after being found guilty of infringing the Constitution and the country's State secrets and also for having received the support of groups with Russian interests) to illustrate that direct universal suffrage had more disadvantages than advantages. Finally outgoing President Valdis Zatlers suggested that the time between the appointment of candidates and the election be set in a way that Latvians could get to know and make a better assessment of the people running. According to a poll by TNS Latvia more than three-quarters of Latvians (79%) believe that the selection of candidates for the supreme office is not transparent and difficult to understand.
According to a poll by TNS Latvia and TV channel LNT half of Latvians (49%) would be against a further candidature on the part of outgoing Valdis Zatlers as Head of State. When asked about the people they would like to see run for the presidential election 27.4% of those interviewed quoted the mayor of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs (ZZS). The outgoing President came second however (24.9%), Vaira Vike-Freiberga was mentioned by 19.3% of those interviewed.
The two candidates, Valdis Zatlers and Andris Berzins took part in a TV debate on 25th May as part of the programme "What's going on in Latvia?" hosted by journalist Janis Domburs. In answer to Harmony Centre's wish to have seats in government the outgoing Head of State said that this party should be given responsibilities so that it would see how difficult government work was. Andris Berzins stressed that the party should first come to agreement with the other political parties.
According to political analyst Ivars Ijabs, a second round will be necessary to elect the President of the Republic.