Latvia Table of Contents

More than twenty political parties or coalitions contended for seats in the June 1993 general elections, including Latvia's Way (Latvijas Cels), the Popular Front of Latvia, the Latvian National Independence Movement, Harmony for Latvia, the Latvian Democratic Labor Party, the Latvian Farmers Union, the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party, the Green Party, and Ravnopraviye. Latvians who fled as refugees to the West during World War II were granted the right to vote, even if they had become citizens of other countries. Of the estimated 120,000 such émigrés, however, barely 10,000 had bothered to register by May 1993.

With 32.4 percent of the vote, Latvia's Way, a centrist coalition founded three months before the election, won the largest number of seats--thirty-six. It succeeded in uniting a wide range of prominent advocates of democratization, a free-market economy, and closer cooperation among the Baltic states. The Latvian National Independence Movement, which was further to the right on the political spectrum, won fifteen seats; the moderate-left Harmony for Latvia, which took a liberal stance toward the issue of citizenship, won thirteen seats; and the center-right Latvian Farmers Union won twelve seats. Four smaller groups--Ravnopraviye, the Fatherland and Freedom Union, the Christian Democratic Union, and the Democratic Center Party (subsequently renamed the Democratic Party)--won fewer than ten seats each. The Popular Front of Latvia, despite its large following before independence, fell short of the 4 percent threshold required for representation.

At the start of its first session in July 1993, the Saeima's major acts included election of Anatolijs Gorbunovs of Latvia's Way as its chairman, full restoration of the 1922 constitution, and election of a president. Three candidates ran for president: Gunars Meirovics of Latvia's Way, Aivars Jerumanis of the Christian Democratic Union, and Guntis Ulmanis of the Latvian Farmers Union. Ulmanis succeeded in gaining the necessary majority vote on the third ballot and was inaugurated as president on July 8, 1993. He appointed Valdis Birkavs, a leader of Latvia's Way, as prime minister and asked him to form a government. The Cabinet of Ministers approved by the Saeima on July 20, 1993, was a coalition of members of Latvia's Way, the Latvian Farmers Union, and the Christian Democratic Union.

In July 1994, as a result of a dispute regarding tariffs on agricultural imports, the Latvian Farmers Union withdrew from the ruling coalition, and the Birkavs government resigned. Andrejs Krastins, deputy chairman of the Saeima and chairman of the Latvian National Independence Movement, failed to form a new government. Then Maris Gailis of Latvia's Way engineered a coalition with two groups that emerged from a split in the Harmony for Latvia movement--the National Union of Economists, which advocates an expanded economic role for the state and greater concessions on citizenship rights for the Russians and other ethnic minorities, and Harmony for the People. In September the Gailis government, including Birkavs as foreign minister, was confirmed.

One of the most important issues facing the Saeima was citizenship. Proposals concerning a citizenship bill ranged from retaining the citizenship criteria used for the purposes of the 1993 general elections to granting automatic citizenship to all residents of Latvia. A citizenship bill was passed in June 1994, despite its controversial quota restricting naturalization to fewer than 2,000 people per year. Under heavy domestic and international pressure, however, the Saeima relented, and another citizenship bill, without the quota provision, was passed in July and signed into law by President Ulmanis in August. It requires that applicants have a minimum of five years of continuous residence (in contrast to a December 1991 draft law's sixteen-year residency requirement); a rudimentary know-ledge of the Latvian language, history, and constitution; and a legal source of income. Applicants must also take an oath of loyalty to Latvia and renounce any other citizenship.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress