Think four times, decide once: presidential elections in Latvia

07.06.2015612

668850President in Latvia is elected by members of parliament (Saeima) who, unlike in other countries, can vote for and against all candidates. It may seem that counting “nays” is meaningless since electoral outcome is based on the number of “ayes”. But these numbers, in fact, matter.

Candidates were nominated by all parties present in parliament. The biggest faction Harmony nominated Sergejs Dolgopolovs. Martins Bondars stood for the Latvian Association of Regions. In the meatime, the ruling coalition broke apart. The National Alliance TB/LNNK, with support from deputies of Unity and the For Latvia from the Heart, nominated Egils Levits, a judge of the European Court of Justice. Defence Minister Raimonds Vejonis ran for the biggest part of the Unity party and the Union of Greens and Farmers.

It had been clear even prior to the elections that it might take considerable time to find out the name of a new president. Just an hour before deputies gathered, some of them had voiced concern that the elections would end without the clear outcome and have to be repeated in a week. The explanation was obvious: no party – and therefore no candidate – commanded an absolute majority in parliament and, given their die-hard stance behind their candidates, there would be no winner.

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The beginning of the session proved those expectations. The first two rounds taken within an hour brought in no winner. Vejonis came first, followed by Levits and Dolgopolovs. All candidates, however, were rejected by nearly two thirds of the votes. After the second round when the weakest candidate is switched off, Bondars left the race.

No candidate could also gain over 50 votes in the third round. Dolgopolovs who had only had support of his own faction left the elections. After the round, the Harmony party announced it would not endorse any other candidate.

In the fourth round, taken after a two-hour break, Vejonis surpassed Levits to go alone to the fifth round. The deputies had only one candidate and last voting to elect a president.

For Vejonis, before the deputies started casting their votes, the only positive factor was that the number of “nays” against him had steadily been dropping – from 62 to 51. However, only Unity (without two people who publicly endorsed Levits) and the Union of Greens and Farmers supported him. He lacked nine votes to be elected.

At five o’clock, Vejonis’ backers tried and failed to win sympathies of the National Alliance. However, just thirty minutes later the Union announced they had gathered the necessary number of votes. Raimonds Vejonis was elected a new president of Latvia by 55 deputies. Later, Unity member Karlis Sadurskis told the BNS agency that people from three other parties had provided their votes to Vejonis.

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Election of Raimonds Vejonis poses a question of how we measure victories. If compared to voting a bill, the number of “nays” it received would mean it being rejected right away. How would it be otherwise if nearly twice as many members of parliament voted against it? But it did happen. Picture the scene. A bill is introduced, then rejected, then again introduced, and then again rejected – and voting repeats until the bill is approved. Because it can be rejected countless times, but needs to be approved just once.

Vejonis was rejected by most votes, with two voting rounds when the numbers came close to the two thirds, but still stayed in the race and, in the end, won. He won because presidential election is not the same as voting a bill, even if procedure is similar.

In England, there have been two types of consensus since the 19th century – on politics and on procedure. With this approach, the Latvian elections showed no political consensus but highlighted the consensus on procedure when every participant acknowledges and obeys the same rules of political process. It is not enough to say the situation is perfect and the new president is a symbol of national unity and political compromise. But it is sufficient to keep the entire political system functioning.

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