And the next prime minister will be...

Prime Ministers of Latvia since 1990
Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons
Sometime in the next few weeks, Latvia will have a new cabinet of ministers, lead by most likely the 24th prime minister in the country's history. Who that will be is still the subject of speculation, but we have done our best to outline the most likely candidates, as well as their chances at becoming head of government. Before we get there though, let's take a look at how we got here.

The Background:  

On Sunday, October 6th, citizens of Latvia throughout the world voted for the country's thirteenth Saimea (parliament), the ninth since the country's reestablishment of independence in 1990. Each of the sixteen parties competing to cross the 5% barrier for inclusion in Saeima chose a candidate to become nominated by President Raimonds Vējonis as the next "ministers presidents" (which translates directly as "minister-president" despite "prime minister" being the more commonly used term by English language media here), but only seven of those parties made it to parliament. The results look like this:

Saskaņa: 19.8%
KPV LV: 14.3%
Jaunā konservatīvā partija: 13.6%
Attīstībai/Par!: 12%
Nacionālā apvienība: 11%
Zalo un Zemnieku Savienība: 9.9%
Jaunā Vienotība: 6.7%
5% barrier for inclusion in Saeima
Latvijas reģionu apvienība: 4.1%
Latvijas Krievu savienība: 3.2%
Progresīvie: 2.6%
No Sirds Latvijai: 0.8%
Latvijas nacionālistie: 0.5%
Par alternatīvu: 0.3%
Apvienība SKG: 0.2%
Rīcibas partija: 0.1%
Latvijas centriskā partija: 0.1%

Based on the Sainte-Laguë method used to divide each of the country's five voting regions according to the results, there will be seven parties in the next Saeima with the following amounts of seats:

Saskaņa: 23 seats
JKP: 16 seats
KPV LV: 16 seats
A/Par: 13 seats
NA: 13 seats
ZZS: 11 seats
JV: 8 seats

While readers in countries such as the US and the UK are used to the first place candidate usually becoming the winner regardless of the amount of votes they got, things aren't so simple here in a country where only one party (Tautas fronte in 1990) has ever reached more than 50% of the vote in 100 years of history (discounting authoritarian takeovers or foreign occupations). What this means is that parties must build coalitions of parties and choose ministerial candidates that satisfy each of those factions, otherwise the government is at risk of a "no confidence vote" in parliament which would lead to the government's collapse and the process starting all over again. With so many parties elected to parliament, many with differing ideologies or grudges against one another, the current coalition formation process is likely to be one of the messiest in recent memory. 

Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis (Saskaņa)

Photo Credit: Reinis Inkens, via Wikimedia Commons
Former Minister of Education and Science and Minister of the Economy Dr. Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis PhD (economics) entered politics in 2011 at the age of 33 as a member of Former President Valdis Zatler's new anti-corruption "Reform Party" and then ran in the 2014 election as a member of Vienotība after it absorbed the faltering new faction. He left the party, and his seat in Saeima, in 2015, a year after he was passed over by the coalition to keep his job as economics minister after the 2014 election. He made a grand entry back onto the political stage early this year when he joined Saskaņa and was invited to serve as the party's prime minister candidate by party leader and Mayor of Rīga since 2009 Nils Ušakovs.

Why he will be the next prime minister: Technically, Saskaņa has almost a quarter of the seats in Saeima and would be in a theoretically strong bargaining position in coalition talks. Saskaņa successfully formed a coalition with Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība in Jūrmala's local government (Latvia's fifth largest city) after last year's municipal election, and major ZZS leader Gundars Daudze said late in the election cycle that he would be open the to the idea of forming a government with Dombrovskis' party. Estonia's similar "Centre Party" was able to form a governing coalition two years ago, and has held the premiership ever since. Furthermore, Saskaņa focused very little on controversial issues such as Russian as a language of instruction in schools or second official language this election, and joined with the mainstream "Party of European Socialists" in European parliament last year to shore up their pro-west credentials. Perhaps they have finally done enough to shed the image of the fifth column "Russian party" for others to rethink their "red lines" that they have drawn against cooperation?

Why he won't be: Parties that represent Latvia's ethnic majority (virtually every party aside from Saskaņa, Latvijas Krievu savienība, and some of the fringe ones that scored less than half a percentage point) have loudly declared time and again since Saskaņa's first major victory in 2010 that they would never allow a party that had a nearly decade-long formal cooperation agreement with Vladamir Putin's United Russia into power. The aforementioned Gundars Daudze was quickly shouted down by the rest of his party, and was forced to publicly make a 180 turn on his previous statement. One could even argue that ZZS's poor results last weekend might have even been influenced by Daudze's late August statement, and their collaboration with Saskana in Jūrmala, a city with a large Russian minority, is far easier to justify than a potential one at the national level. It's unlikely that even the few voters who pay close attention to Estonian politics are willing to give Saskaņa a shot, making an alliance with them almost certain political suicide for any party willing to take the plunge.

Aldis Gobzems (KPV LV)

Photo Credit: KPV.LV
This 39-year-old lawyer who represented victims of the 2013 Maxima supermarket roof collapse tragedy was able to help lead former actor Artuss Kaimiņš' populist upstart "Kam pieder valsts?" ("Who owns the state?") faction to an impressive second place finish and 16 seats in Saeima thanks to a brand of conspiratorial and aggressive anti-elite populism that has proved successful throughout the western world in recent years. Although Kaimiņš remains the official party leader and its most recognizable household name, commentators have spent the better part of the campaign trying to understand his power-sharing relationship with Gobzems as well as alleged outside help they might have been receiving from oligarch Ainars Šlesers.

Why he will be the next prime minister: As KPV LV earned the most votes of the so-called "Latvian parties" and have tied for the second most seats in Saeima, putting them in a strong negotiating position going forward. Despite some observers predicting that he hasn't been serious about actually wanting the job, Gobzems has quickly pivoted away from the fiery rhetoric he used all the way up to the end of the final debate on election eve and has taken a conciliatory tone towards most of his rival parties. An alliance with Jaunā konservatīvā partija and Atīstībai/Pār! likely wouldn't be too difficult for his followers to stomach as both are fellow newcomers to Saeima, but that would leave them with only 45 seats and a minority government dependent on votes from the opposition in order to get anything done. Avoiding this would require inviting one of the three previous coalition parties (ZZS, Vienotība, or Nacionālā apvienība), a move that could potentially damage Gobzems' image among KPV's anti-establishment base.

Why he won't be: President Vējonis has made it clear that he will nominate a candidate who will continue the current government's pro-EU pro-NATO direction, and although KPV LV never explicitly railed against the European project, echoes of the rhetoric and style used by populist Euro-skeptic factions throughout the continent has Brussels spooked. It doesn't help that Gobzems has remained relatively silent regarding foreign policy and stayed ambiguous regarding a possible alliance with Saskaņa up until the night before the election, signals that some observers have interpreted as an implied weak commitment to the EU and NATO. Other potential coalition parties would also have to agree to his leadership, something that they might be reluctant to do after bearing the brunt of his constant attacks throughout the campaign. Gobzems might also calculate that he has more to gain by keeping KPV LV on the sidelines and waiting for the almost inevitable collapse of the next fractured government (and even possible early elections), rather than get involved with governing and certainly needing to break some of the promises that got him elected in the first place.

Jānis Bordāns (Jaunā konservatīvā partija)

Photo credit: Saeima, via Wikimedia Commons
This 51-year old former Minister of Justice from 2012-2014 has had a successful career as a lawyer apprenticing at prestigious London firm Linklaters & Paine, working in Rīga district attorney's office, and advising Latvijas Televizija (Latvia's national public television), all while remaining active in politics virtually his entire life. Like the majority of lifelong Latvian politicians, Bordāns has jumped from party to party over the years. Starting out in the Soviet-era Young Communist League during his teenage years, he joined the nationalist Tautas Fronte (People's Front) in 1989 at the age of 22 before switching over to the new Latvijas ceļš (Latvian Way) party in 1993. He then joined up with the short-lived Pilsoniskā savienība (Civic Union) sometime after 2008 until it joined together with Jaunais laiks (New Era Party) and Sabiedrība citai politikai (Society for Political Change) to form Vienotība in 2010. After failing to get elected to Saeima in that year's election, he switched over to Nacionālā apvienība (National alliance) where he once again failed to make it to parliament in 2011's early election. His time in NA turned out to be both contentious and brief, as he drew the ire of party leadership when they discovered that he was simultaneously sitting on the board of directors for the rival Demokrātiskie patrioti (Democratic Patriots) faction. After getting kicked out of the former in 2013 and withdrawing from the latter a year later, Bordāns decided to finally try his hand at creating his own political force, and founded Jaunā konservatīva partija (The New Conservative Party) just in time to receive a mere 0.7% of the vote in the 2014 elections. Since then, JKP has steadily grown in popularity thanks in part to some high profile additions such as former state anti-corruption bureau (KNAB) director Juta Strīķe, first outperforming expectations in local elections throughout the country the last year and now being tied for second largest party in Saeima.

Why he will be the next prime minister: Although KPV LV technically earned 5570 more votes (roughly the population of the northern town of Smiltene as Aldis Gobzems has pointed out), JKP has just as many seats in Saeima, and their more mainstream brand of conservatism is likely a more attractive option to President Vējonis than handing the keys of government over to anti-establishment populists. Bordāns is pretty much tied with Roberts Zīle for the longest experience in politics out of all the likely ministerial candidates, a trait that could either hurt or harm him as contentious negotiations continue between Saturday's successful parties. Furthermore, a meeting on Wednesday with NA chairman Raivis Dzintars signaled that Bordāns' former faction might be ready to bury the hatchet with him.

Why he won't be: No one gets through 25 years in politics anywhere in the world (but especially Latvia) without making at least a few enemies. Bad blood remains between him and Nacionālā apvienība over his membership in Demokrātiskie patrioti despite the aforementioned positive meeting with Dzintars (who doesn't necessarily speak for everyone in his party) on Wednesday, and any already unlikely collaboration with ZZS was virtually ruled out after a 20-minute meeting on Wednesday between Bordāns and Armands Krauze ended with the ZZS leader promising that his faction would vote against any JKP-led cabinet. Hopes of forming a majority coalition may end up relying on Vienotība, another former party which might not be ready and willing to reward his 2011 defection by handing him the next premiership.

Artis Pabriks (Atīstībai/Par!)

Photo credit: Ernests Dinka, via Wikimedia Commons
Another political veteran with an even more impressive resume including serving as Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs for three years each, this 52-year-old PhD in political science and current Member of European Parliament got his start in academia, first as a lecturer at Rīgas Starptautiskās ekonomikas un biznesa administrācijas augstskolas (RISEBA) and then as a professor and the first ever rector of Vidzemes augstskola in Valmiera. After taking part in the founding of oligarch and former Prime Minister Andris Šķēle's Tautas partija (People's Party) in 1998, Pabriks stayed mostly on the sidelines until successfully running for Saeima in 2002 and becoming foreign minister two years after that. He served in the government of Indulis Emsis and then retained his post in Aigars Kalvītis' cabinet after the October 2006 election, but resigned a year later in protest of the government's controversial decision to dismiss head of the state's anti-corruption agency (KNAB) Aleksejs Loskutovs, ultimately choosing to leave Tautaus partija altogether and joining the newly formed Sabiedrība citai politikai (Society for Political Change) in 2008 and staying on after their 2010 merger with Pilsoniskā savienība (Civic Union) and Jaunais laiks (New Era Party) to form Vienotība in 2010. His second stint in government came as Valdis Dombrovskis' defense minister starting from November of that year, and he was even chosen by his party to replace Dombrovskis as premier after his resignation in the wake of the 2013 Maxima supermarket roof collapse tragedy. President Andris Bērziņš blocked that from happening for reasons still not completely clear, leading to Pabriks' election to European parliament instead (where he still currently sits) a few months later. This June, he became one of several top members to abandon what seemed to be Vienotība's sinking ship in favor of the similarly centrist catch-all Atīstībai/Par! and was given his second shot at becoming prime minister when he was chosen as their candidate for this election.

Why he will be the next prime minister: Pabriks has been widely discussed as a "compromise candidate" for the premiership, and he certainly fits the bill in many regards. It's hard to imagine a coalition configuration that doesn't include Attīstībai/Par! as a participant, and he has likely burned less bridges than Gobzems and Bordāns thanks in no small part to his far less fiery and confrontational style. While he has jumped ship on two different parties, his reasons for doing so are likely far easier for others to accept than Bordāns' serial party hopping. Importantly, foreign policy credentials earned from nearly seven combined years of running the country's defense and foreign ministries would likely make him an attractive candidate to President Vējonis, and his years of experience in both Saeima and European parliament might calm the nerves of potential coalition participants frayed by the country's (and continent's) ongoing political upheaval.

Why he won't be: Attīstībai/Par! is already in itself an alliance between multiple factions with quite different economic philosophies, and agreements with a number of possible governing coalition partners could theoretically lead to member defections that would weaken Pabriks' leadership mandate right off the bat. His close connection in the past with oligarch Andris Šķēle might also make him a difficult pill for potential partner KPV LV's more hardcore members to swallow.

Roberts Zīle (Nacionālā apvienība)

Photo Credit: European Parliament
A PhD in economics, 60-year-old Dr. Zīle has been active in nationalist political factions dating back to Latvia's reestablishment of independence in 1990. He served first as Guntars Krasts' minister of finance in the late 90s and then Einars Repše's minister of transportation in the early 2000s up until being elected as one of Latvia's first ever members of European parliament following the country's ascension in 2004. He has served there ever since, focusing on transportation and economics issues in Brussels and particularly the long-planned Rail Baltica project to connect Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with the rest of Europe's rail network.

Why he will be the next prime minister: Like Pabriks, Zīle could potentially serve as a compromise candidate alternative to the more combative Gobzems and Bordāns. His connections in Brussels thanks to his fourteen-year tenure as a member of European parliament might make him a favorable option for a president dedicated to a continuation of the country's pro-western track, and his party's participation in the previous government could provide a bridge of stability between the outgoing and incoming cabinets.

Why he won't: With the election results essentially turning out to be a referendum on the previous coalition government, it's less likely that the new parties in parliament will want to reward Nacionālā apvienība with the prime ministership after losing four seats in Saeima following the election. Also, although he's spent plenty of time in Brussels, he's been known for espousing soft-Euroskeptic opinions from time to time that might cause President Vējonis to think twice before agreeing to his nomination.

Maris Kučinskis (ZZS) or Krišjānis Kariņš (Jaunā Vienotība)

Member of European Parliament Krišjānis Kariņš (left) and Prime Minister Maris Kučinskis (right)
Photo Credit: Ieva Lūka/LETA via Kas Jauns
As candidates from the two leading parties in the outgoing coalition, a universe does exist where a strange series of events leads to either current Prime Minister Kučinskis being able to hold onto his job or MEP Krišjānis Kariņš being able to form another Vienotība-led  government. Although it is quite likely that at least one of these parties will be participating in whatever coalition does emerge out of the next few weeks' talks, it would be difficult for either of them to justify holding onto the reigns of government after receiving such a loud and clear message from voters. As mentioned previously, JKP dramatically ruled out any cooperation with ZZS on Wednesday, and it would be hard to imagine KPV LV backtracking from the harsh stance they took regarding oligarch and Mayor of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs' party throughout the election. Krišjānis Kariņš could be considered as a "compromise candidate," but Pabriks and Zīle are far more likely options.

Someone Else

If talks remain fruitless and weeks go by without any sign of a breakthrough, it is possible that President Vējonis could nominate an outsider candidate who could potentially unite different factions together. President Guntis Ulmanis did this in 1995 to some level of success with Prime Minister Andris Šķēle, but its difficult to imagine who exactly would be able to do this in 2018. Widely popular independent politicians are hard to come by these days, especially ones with enough clout to be able to lead a cabinet of ministers for any amount of time.

Early Elections

Finally, if all else fails and unbreakable gridlock persists after at least a month of fruitless coalition talks, the president does have the ability to propose snap elections as Valdis Zatlers did in 2011. In that case, a referendum would first be held to determine if voters agree with the president that the current Saeima should be dismissed, and if the majority agree, another entire parliamentary election would take place. Although precedent does exist for this both in Latvia and elsewhere throughout Europe, its unclear if the electorate has the stomach for another vote so soon after the contentious election that just ended. Its even less clear if the results would be any different, or if a different result would lead to an easier government formation process.

Final Thoughts

Flag of the Prime Minister of Latvia
Although experts have all kinds of opinions regarding the most likely scenarios for the next cabinet of ministers, it really is anyone's guess what happens next. One thing is for sure though — the next few weeks will certainly be interesting to watch.

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