I. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
(..) Despite previous ODIHR recommendations, the law continues to provide a blanket restriction for those who have committed an intentional crime, irrespective of its gravity, and restricts eligibility of citizens with certain prior political affiliations and occupations.
Issues pertaining to language and identity generated divisive political discourse. Parties are broadly perceived as representing either Latvian speakers or the considerable Russian-speaking population, many of whom are non-citizens. Despite some initiatives to facilitate integration in recent years, there remain some 228,855 people registered as non-citizens. Such individuals cannot vote in or stand for elections. While citizenship is an acceptable requirement for the right to be elected and to vote in national elections, it remains a concern that a significant number of persons belonging to national minorities cannot participate in the electoral process, as they do not hold citizenship.
A wide range of political programmes, including those of public broadcasters, enabled both Latvian and Russian-speaking voters to make an informed choice.
Priority recommendations relate to revisions of restrictions on candidate and party eligibility, efforts to promote naturalization of non-citizens
The last parliamentary elections were held on 4 October 2014 and resulted in a three-party governing coalition consisting of Unity (23 seats), Union of Greens and Farmers (21), and National Alliance (17).5 The Social Democratic Party Harmony – widely perceived as representing Latvian Russian-speakers – has been the largest parliamentary group since 2011 but has remained in opposition.6 Parties have been unwilling to enter a coalition with Harmony, mostly, but not exclusively, due to policy differences on language use and the country’s geopolitical orientation.7
Footnote 6 Harmony is widely considered to have attempted over the past years to change its profile to that of a Europeanstyle social democratic party. According to the party chairperson Nils Ušakovs, the longstanding co-operation agreement with United Russia lapsed in 2016. Harmony was granted provisional full membership of the Party of European Socialists in November 2017, and was accepted as a full member at the Congress held on 7-8 December 2018.
Footnote 7 On 22 March 2018, parliament passed amendments to both the Law on Education and the Law on General Education, under which schools that teach classes in minority languages must gradually transition to Latvian-only secondary education in the 2020/2021 academic year. Members of Harmony requested that the president halt the amendments, but he did not.
Local elections held in June 2017 saw most of the largest cities reelect their incumbent mayors, including in Riga where Harmony secured its party leader’s return to office for a third time, albeit with a significantly reduced majority of seats in the city council
IV. LEGAL FRAMEWORK AND ELECTORAL SYSTEM
In 2016, amendments to the Criminal Law were adopted that certain criminalise non-violent actions against the Republic of Latvia. Some ODIHR EAM interlocutors raised concerns that these provisions lack legal clarity and could be interpreted broadly to restrict freedom of expression, including in the context of election campaigning.12
Footnote 12 Articles 80 and 81 of the Criminal Law criminalise actions and calls directed against national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, state power or the administrative order of Latvia. The newly introduced Article 81.1 provides sanctions for assistance to a foreign state or a foreign organisation against the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, state power, institutional set-up of the state or national security of Latvia. According to the Latvian Russian Union (LRU), criminal cases were opened against some party members under these provisions shortly before and during the campaign, and at least one person was detained. The Latvian Security Police did not provide the ODIHR EAM with information on this issue
V. ELECTION ADMINISTRATION
The CEC also offered an optional online course on election day procedures in Latvian, Russian and English.
VII. CANDIDATE REGISTRATION
Citizens who belong, or have belonged, to the salaried staff of the security service, intelligence or counterintelligence of a foreign country or of the former Soviet Union (or the Latvian Soviet Republic), as well as those who have been active members of the communist party of the Soviet union or the Republic of Latvia after 13 January 1991, continue to be ineligible to stand.34 While in 2006 the ECtHR ruled that the restriction on former communist party members is in line with the ECHR, it held that “the Latvian parliament must keep the statutory restriction under constant review, with a view to bringing it to an early end”.35
Footnote 34 Article 25 of the ICCPR requires that all citizens have the right to stand for office without restrictions based on the distinctions referenced in Article 2, such as “political or other opinions”.
Footnote 35 See Zdanoka v. Latvia, March 2006; see also Adamsons v. Latvia, June 2008. In 2009, amendments to the election law narrowed the application of the provisions to exclude individuals serving technical support roles. However, 2014 amendments to the State Security Committee Document Law extended the applicability for an additional 30 years, and mandated that the Cabinet of Ministers review the need for these provisions at least every five years. A further decision regarding the provisions is expected by spring 2019
On 29 June 2018, the Constitutional Court found that the restriction remains constitutional.36 In addition, the Court prescribed that while screening each candidate who is subject to this restriction, the CEC has discretion to verify whether the person continues to pose a threat to Latvia’s independence and the principles of a democratic state. Following this ruling, the CEC rejected the registration of the leader of the LRU, inter alia, for posing a threat to Latvia’s independence and democracy. The law does not specify criteria for determining what constitutes such a threat. Positively, the Constitutional Court previously assessed the cited restriction on three occasions, which has resulted in its narrowed application.37
Footnote 36 The constitutional challenge was brought by the leader of LRU (and plaintiff of the 2006 ECtHR case), Tatjana Zdanoka. On 3 September, the District Administrative Court upheld the CEC decision to not register Ms. Zdanoka.
Footnote 37 In 2000, 2005 and 2017.
Consistent with prior ODIHR recommendations, the authorities should continue to review the need to maintain restrictions on candidate eligibility based on prior political affiliation or occupation. Any criteria on eligibility of candidates should be objective, proportionate, and clearly provided for by law.
73.2 per cent of candidates opted to declare their ethnicity: 66.7 per cent identified as Latvian, 4.9 per cent as Russian and 1.9 per cent as belonging to other ethnicities.39
Footnote 39 According to the Central Election Commission.
VIII. ELECTION CAMPAIGN
The question of which party, if any, would be willing to enter a potential governing coalition with Harmony was pervasive during debates and
political television programmes.
The last two weeks of the campaign was characterised by increasingly negative and alarmist messaging by several contestants.46
Footnote 46 Some contestants accused opponents of “pro-Kremlin” strategies, while others made broad claims of state corruption or state capture by communist interests.
On 6 October, the draugiem.lv social network was hacked, with the front page replaced by a pro-Russia message, without consequences on data privacy.51 Latvia’s state security service, the Constitution Protection
Bureau (SAB), announced on 8 October that no cyber-attacks by foreign military intelligence were observed that would have had any impact on the elections.
Footnote 51 See “Social Media Hack on Latvian Election Day”, from Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
IX. NON-CITIZEN AND NATIONAL MINORITY PARTICIPATION
As of 1 January 2018, the total population of Latvia was 1,934,379 persons. Ethnic Latvians comprise 62.2 per cent of the population. The largest ethnic minority groups are Russians (25.2 per cent), Belarusians (3.2 per cent), Ukrainians (2.2 per cent) and Poles (2.1 per cent).52 According to the 2011 census, an estimated 37 per cent of the population speak Russian at home.
Footnote 52 According to the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia (CBS), groups making up less than 2 per cent of the population include Lithuanians, Jews and Roma
National minorities have constitutionally protected rights, including the right to preserve and develop their language and their ethnic and cultural identity. The legal framework provides for the participation of national minorities, who are citizens of Latvia, in the electoral process on an equal basis. A declaration contained in Latvia’s ratification of the FCNM states that non-citizens shall enjoy the rights prescribed in the FCNM, unless specific exceptions are prescribed by law.
In general, ODIHR EAM interlocutors, including representatives of national minorities, noted that language and identity issues continued to generate divisive political discourse. Despite progress in recent years, a large number of permanent residents remain without citizenship.53 As of 1 July 2018, non-citizens numbered 228,855 (about 11 per cent of the population), 54 of which an estimated 227,000 are of voting age. Non-citizens almost exclusively belong to national minorities, the majority of whom are of Russian ethnicity.55 They have the opportunity to undertake the naturalization process to become citizens; however, despite recent measures to reduce the number of “non-citizens”,56 the rate of naturalization remains low.57
Footnote 53 Following the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1991, citizenship was provided automatically only to residents and their descendants who had been citizens of Latvia during the first independence period, leaving a large number of Latvian residents without any citizenship. Footnote 54 According to information provided to the ODIHR EAM by the CBS.
Footnote 55 According to information provided to the ODIHR EAM by the OCMA.
Footnote 56 On 1 October 2013, amendments to the Citizenship Law came into force that expand the categories of persons who are exempt from some or all naturalization examinations and provide simplified procedures for granting citizenship to children born in Latvia to non-citizens upon the registration of the birth with the consent of one rather than both parents. Prior to these amendments, the consent of both parents was required.
Footnote 57 The ODIHR EAM was informed that among disincentives to take Latvian citizenship is the fact that non-citizens can travel visa-free on non-citizen passports within the Schengen Zone and to Russia.
The OCMA sends letters encouraging families with eligible non-citizen children to pursue the child’s registration as a citizen, but no such campaign is targeted to the non-citizen population of voting age. ODIHR has previously recommended that in order to promote inclusive political participation, the authorities should explore ways to increase the naturalization rate.
Non-citizens do not have the right to vote or stand in local or national elections or to form political parties, although they have the right to join political parties as long as they make up less than half of the total number of members. While citizenship is an acceptable requirement for the right to be elected and to vote in national elections, a significant number of persons belonging to national minorities cannot participate in the electoral process as they do not hold citizenship.58
Footnote 58 See, for example, the 2006 Venice Commission Report on Non-Citizens and Minority Rights.
In order to promote inclusive political participation, the authorities could further explore ways to increase the naturalization rate of adult non-citizens, such as conducting campaigns to promote naturalization, publicizing opportunities for simplified naturalization under the revised Citizenship Law in Latvian and minority languages, and expanding the availability of free opportunities to learn Latvian.
Basic voter education and information materials were translated by the CEC into Russian and English, and were published on the CEC website. However, ODIHR EAM interlocutors noted that such materials, as well as information on parties and candidates, were not as comprehensive as those produced in Latvian and were not widely available.59
Footnote 59 Paragraph 12 of the 1996 UN HCR General Comment No. 25 recommends that “information and materials about voting should be available in minority languages”. Paragraph 32.5 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document states that “persons belonging to national minorities have the right […] to disseminate, have access to and exchange information in their mother tongue”. Paragraph 92 of the 2012 Thematic Commentary No. 3 of the FCNM Advisory Committee, recommends that “the authorities should also consider providing opportunities for the use of minority languages in public service television and radio programs devoted to election campaigns and on ballot slips and other electoral material in areas inhabited by persons belonging to national minorities traditionally or in substantial numbers”.
A. MEDIA ENVIRONMENT
The media environment is pluralistic, although divided along linguistic lines. The audience is divided between Latvian and Russian-speaking segments, which was reflected in the media coverage of the campaign.
The public broadcaster comprises two national TV channels, LTV1 and LTV7, one web TV channel and six radio stations. Interlocutors reported to the ODIHR EAM that following developments in and around Ukraine, the government increased public funding for Russian language programmes on
LTV7 in 2015. In addition, the public radio station LR4 targets national minority audiences and broadcasts mainly in Russian. Television is the primary source of information, with the public LTV1 and the main commercial Latvian language TV channels TV3 and LNT and Russian language First Baltic Channel (PBK) dominating the market in terms of audience. The most popular radio stations offering informative content are the public LR1 and private SWH.
The main Latvian language newspapers are the dailies Diena, Neatkariga Rita Avize, Latvijas Avize and the weekly news magazine IR. Widespread Russian language publications are the daily Vesti Segodnya and the weekly MK Latvia. However, the circulation of print media has considerably declined as most media offer news content online. The most popular portals are Delfi.lv, TVNet.lv and Lsm.lv.
C. COVERAGE OF THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN
The media covered the campaign in a comprehensive manner, providing voters with a broad range of views in both Latvian and Russian languages enabling them to make an informed choice. All ODIHR EAM media interlocutors noted the variety of political programmes available in this
campaign and praised the quality of the public broadcaster’s coverage. The public television and radio broadcasters offered extensive coverage, including in Russian, through their news programmes and election-oriented programming, such as talk shows, debates, interviews, and free air time. Broadcast and print private media widely covered the campaign in line with their editorial policies.
During the campaign LTV7 devoted most of its Russian language formats to campaign-related content, and the Russian language channel LR4 broadcast for the first time a voter education programme offering in-depth analysis of political concepts and terminology to raise election literacy.
These recommendations, as contained throughout the text, are offered with a view to further enhance the conduct of elections in Latvia and to support efforts to bring them fully in line with OSCE commitments and other international obligations and standards for democratic elections. These recommendations should be read in conjunction with past ODIHR recommendations that remain to be addressed. ODIHR stands ready to assist the authorities of Latvia to further improve the electoral process and to address the recommendations contained in this and previous reports.89
Footnote 89 In paragraph 25 of the 1999 OSCE Istanbul Document, OSCE participating States committed themselves “to follow up promptly the ODIHR’s election assessment and recommendations”. The follow-up of prior recommendations is assessed by the ODIHR EAM as follows: from the final ODIHR report on the 2014 parliamentary elections, recommendations 5, 11 and 16 are partially implemented.
A. PRIORITY RECOMMENDATIONS
2. Consistent with prior ODIHR recommendations, the authorities should review the need to maintain restrictions on candidate eligibility based on prior political affiliation or occupation. Any criteria on eligibility of candidates should be objective, proportionate, and clearly provided for by law.
4. In order to promote inclusive political participation, the authorities could further explore ways to increase the naturalization rate of adult non-citizens, such as conducting campaigns to promote naturalization, publicizing opportunities for simplified naturalization under the revised Citizenship Law in Latvian and minority languages, and expanding the availability of free opportunities to learn Latvian.
B. OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS
10. The CEC could consider producing detailed voter information materials in minority languages and in formats accessible for persons with impaired hearing, with a view to increasing the information outreach for different categories of voters.
Document data: 17.01.2019, Link: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/latvia/409344?download=true Also available in Latvian at https://www.osce.org/lv/odihr/elections/latvia/409665?download=true
- The restriction on former activists of the Communist party is related to anti-minority policy, as revealed by government claims reflected in para. 93 of the ECtHR Grand Chamber judgment in Zdanoka v. Latvia (2006).
- After the 2018 elections covered in the present report, many parties have obtained a right to public funding, having got over 2 % of the votes. One of them, the Latvian Russian Union, however, was denied opening an account by Latvian banks, and on this pretext, the payment of the public funding was refused to it. See https://eng.lsm.lv/article/politics/politics/no-state-cash-for-latvian-russian-union.a301396/ and (in Russian) https://m.rus.delfi.lv/latvija/article.php?id=50625213