When on 18 November 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed it was indented as a democratic republic with free elections and equal political rights for all. But, Latvians had no experience in this as they never had a real chance for the sovereign government for many centuries. Despite all the difficulties Latvians managed to make one of the most democratic constitutions in whole Europe. Five parliaments were elected without serious voting violations. The governments however were another story as rivalry between numerous political parties made short-lived governments and political instability. The intrigues, treachery and personal ambitions lead to end of Latvian democracy in 15 May 1934. However, we cannot say that Latvian parliamentary system was deeply flawed as Latvia managed to achieve many successes and could achieve even without the coup of 15 May.
During the war for independence the official pre-parliamentary body that was responsible for the Provisional government was the Peoples Council. On December 2 1918 council gave the order to its Constitutional commission in two weeks time to make provisions for elections of the Constitutional Assembly. In Latvian the constitution is called Satversme the word that originated from the early days of the Latvian ancestors. However, the Bolshevik invasion halted these preparations for elections. After Latvian Provisional Government returned to Riga on 16 July 1919 again a new order was made to prepare a special draft for the election law.
The law was issued on September 27 1919. The Constitutional Assembly was to be elected in general, equal, direct and proportional elections by voters of equal gender from 21 years. Citizenship was given to those persons and their descendants who lived in Latvia until 1 August 1914. Latvia was divided into five electoral districts with defined number of elected seats in Riga 22, Vidzeme 37, Semigallia 26, Courland 26 and Latgalia – 39. The elections were set for a time when whole Latvia will be liberated from the enemy. There were still Bolshevik forces in Latgalia.
The liberation came in 1920 and Provisional governments issued the elections for the Constitutional Assembly on 17 -18 April. Two main contestants were the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDWP) and Latvian Farmers Union (LFU). LSDWP had its roots since 1905 and after falling out with Bolsheviks they supported the independent Latvia. LFU was lead by Kārlis Ulmanis the Prime Minister of the Provisional government. However, it was not a two-party contest as the liberal election law allowed only 100 petitions to form a party list and there was no percent barrier. Because of this numerous Latvian parties also took part, along with Baltic German, Russian and Jewish national lists. Also many regional like Latgalian parties took part. A two-party system in Latvia was impossible as there were too many personal interests and ambitions in many Latvian, not to forget the national minorities.
Despite the fact that some areas in Northern Latvia were unable to vote because of the presence of the Estonian forces, the election turnout was high: 84,88% of registered voters took part. There was some interference from Bolshevik activists, even failed assassination attempt of Kārlis Ulmanis. However the elections were successful and the LSDWP won by 38,66%, LFU gained 28,36%. Third came the Latgalian Farmers party. Many Latvian parties won three to single seats. Jews gained eight seats from different parties, six Germans and four Russians and one Pole also were elected. Six female deputies were elected including notable writer the wife of Jānis Rainis Aspazija (E, Rozenberga). Later in November after the Estonian army left the elections were held in areas where they originally could not be held. With that the first Latvian parliament had 152 members.
The new parliament was called to work for the first time in May 1 1920. Jānis Čakste was elected the president of the assembly. Kārlis Ulmanis resigned from his head of the Provisional Government post. The main goal of the Constituent Assembly was to write the Satversme – Latvian constitution. The working place for the Assembly was the former house of Riga Chivalry at Jēkabs street 11.
On June 11 1920 Kārlis Ulmanis again took the post of the Prime Minister. The first goal was to finish the peace talks with Soviet Russia and Germany that resulted in success. Then next and most important target was the Agricultural reform. Land had to be distributed to the Latvian nation to rebuild the country. Before the war the major part of agricultural lands belonged to Baltic German nobles. Now the Latvian government took away the most from them leaving only their mansions and land of 50 hectares. It was painful but right decision as Latvians at last could freely maintain their own land. That however left a rather hateful Baltic German minority.
The Satversme was passed on February 15 1922. It stated that Latvia is a democratic republic in where the sovereign power belongs to the people of Latvia. The parliament was named Saeima and was to be elected for three years in the same matter as the Assembly. The size of the parliament was 100 seats. During the work of the Assembly first government change was witnessed as Kārlis Ulmanis was forced to step down leaving his college Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics to take charge. The LSDWP split in two fractions as more progressive right wing social democrats left the main party. Kārlis Ulmanis deeply regretted his loss of power and that was the beginning of his year long disappointment of the parliamentary system.
The first Saeima was elected in 7 -8 October. It was rumored that originally the election date was set for September 30, however because of the Jewish festival Sukkot the date was moved to October. It has been the official election month since then. 82,2% people took part in the elections. LSDWP won by 30,56%, their splinter party social democrats “minors” gained 6,26%. LFU won 16,77% seats. Their main rivals were the Democratic Center (DC) and Latvian New Farmers party (LNFP). Also Nonparty nationalist block and Christian Democratic Union gained scores. The Germans gained the most seats also Jews, Poles and Russians were elected. The Germans had united party list while Jews and Russians had many rivaling lists. No female candidates made in parliament.
The first Chairman of Saeima also the formally second man after the president was social democrat Frīdrihs Vesmanis. He was later replaced with party member Pauls Kalniņš. On November 14 1922 Jānis Čakste was elected as the first Latvian president.
Čakste was responsible for nominating the Prime Minister; the parliament had to approve his proposed government. After many failed talks with party leaders, the independent Jānis Pauļuks was chosen as the compromise figure. His government included LSDWP and worked for five months. After right wing activists caused riots in LSDWP lead demonstration, the social democrats left the coalition in protest. He was then replaced by LFU leader Meierovics on June 28 1923. After few months social democrats deposed him in revenge for assault against their two deputies done by the officers of the Latvian army. Social Democrats arranged government by independent Voldemārs Zāmuels, he was supported by them, but they did not part in the government. His government lasted from January 24 1924 until December 19 1924 when LFU again won the upper hand by installing their member Hugo Celmiņš as the PM. Despite the rivalry First Saeima managed to form the provisions for ministry work and passed the Conscription law. Also laws regarding unions, societies and political organizations were finished. The new law of the press was liberal and friendly to the emerging Latvian press industry.
The elections for the Second Saeima took place in 1925 3-4 October. The activity dropped to 74,89% 141 electoral lists were submitted and only 48 of them entered the parliament. That was usual for those times and nobody wanted to change that. LSDWP won again in 31,36%, the “social democrats minors” gained 3,61% much lower than last time. LFU won 15,3 %, Catholic and Christian Farmers Union was second in the right wing party list. DC and LNFP gained some seats along with many other single mandate right wing parties. Five Germans, five Jews, four Russians and two Poles were elected. Belorussian and Estonian lists failed to enter the parliament.
New parliament elected Jānis Čakste as the president for the second term; he died in office on March 14 1927. After many failed attempts an independent Gustavs Zemgals was elected.
The new parliament had problems forming a government as in the same night of 22-23 December two governments were proposed. First was Voldemārs Zāmuels who was declined and then Kārlis Ulmanis government formed a minority government. He could hold office for only four and half months. On 4 May 1926 LFU managed to form government lead by Arturs Alberings. On December 17 1926 he was replaced by the leader of the “social democrats minors” Marģers Skujenieks who formed the leftist government. LSDWP with the help of their splinter force again entered the government. After the DC who supported the leftists switched sides the government collapsed. On January 24 1928 DC member Pēteris Juraševskis formed the right wing government and included Baltic Germans in the coalition.
The greatest test for the Saeima was the amendment in the citizenship law that allowed people and their descendants living in Latvia before 1881 gain citizen rights. That sparked large protests from nationalists who feared that large numbers of Jews will gain citizen rights. Protests caused referendum against the amendment that was labeled “Jew law”. However, the protesters could not gather necessary votes to halt the citizenship reforms. Another issue was a trade agreement with the Soviet Union that caused large controversy. Achievement was reforms in social policies and healthcare.
Third Saeima was elected in October 1928. Despite obvious flaws in the election law little was done to stop the influx of the mini party lists and fragmentation of the Latvian political system continued. LSDWP gained 24,5% a great drop in popularity caused by failed government and appearance of more radical leftist movements. Leftist workers list gained 5%. The radical socialist movements were actually legal covers of the Latvian Communist Party that was illegal. Its main goal was the breakdown of the Latvian state. Right wing parties kept their ranks, LFU and DC had relative successes. The Latvian New Landowners and Small Landowners party (LNLSLP) became more stronger while LNFP fell out. National conservative lists gained strength. Russians and Germans gained six seats, Jews five but Poles two.
This was unusual Saeima as there were only two governments both lead by LFU. Hugo Celmiņš managed to lead the government for three years, a record only to be broken in the second period of independence. Kārlis Ulmanis took after Celmiņš government collapsed. The work of Saeima was severely disrupted by the radical Workers and Peasants fraction that openly supported the Soviet Union and condemned the independence. Calling for the establishment of the Worldwide Socialist Republic and singing the anthem of the Soviet Union in the parliament sessions, communist deputies made it difficult to make decisions. The Latvian legal system was struggling to find ways to stop them. In return far right wing nationalist members formed a National fraction. The last legally elected president by Saeima was Alberts Kviesis in 1930.
The elections for Fourth Saeima took in the height of the Great Depression of 1931. Crisis took Latvia in 1929 along with the rest of the world. The economical situation worsened in 1931-1932. However, instead of greater gains the crisis only weakened the positions of LSDWP and their radical counterparts. LFU also had losses. DC and LNLNSLP gained more votes. Many smaller crisis themed parties like Former depositors and the debtor’s party entered Saeima. The nationalist parties also suffered losses, the main force National Union fell out while Christian Democrats lost many mandates. Germans and Russians gained six seats, while Jews only three, and Poles two. The election turnout showed great dissatisfaction with all the leading parties and path to radicalization as former supporters on both left and right-wing official parties turn to support anti-governmental movements. This was the first and only Saeima with elected female deputy Berta Bīpiņa from DC list.
Instability returned to the governments. First government was formed by Marģers Skujenieks, an ex social democrat minor who shifted to progressive nationalism. On May 22 1933 he was replaced by LNLNSP leader Ādolfs Bļodnieks. The growing danger of right-wing radicalism became stronger as Germany was taken over by the Nazis. Latvian nation radical movement sympathetic to the Italian fascist regime “Thundercross” filled the society with anti-Semitic propaganda and national hate. They openly declared that they desire to overthrow the parliamentary system. Many other smaller radical Latvian movements as United Latvian National socialist Party and colonel Ozols movement also strived for this. Latvian Communist party on the other hand also took an active fight. In the end their elected deputies under the guise of “Leftist workers block” were removed from the parliament. The exposed Communists including famous writer Linards Laicēns moved to the Soviet Union where they perished in Stalin’s purges in 1937. Even more dangerous where the Baltic German Nazi movement.
In the end it turned out that destroyers of the Latvian democracy were the democrats themselves. Kārlis Ulmanis in 1918-1920 was the national hero. Leader of the Provisional Government he was one of the most influential politicians ever. However, the failure of becoming president and short-lived governments lead by him scorched his popularity. He was involved in many scandals and was the constant laughingstock of the Latvian journalists. The last elections showed a great danger for Ulmanis to not to be elected again in the next elections. Ulmanis was the example of what they call a “political animal” a man whose life is all about politics. Ulmanis had no wife and children and no other hobbies beside politics and financing. But his ambitions were still strong and seeing authoritarian regimes springing up all Eastern Europe, he saw no wrong by taking all the power himself.
So begun the plot that lead to coup in May 15 1934. Before that Ulmanis legally deposed Bļodnieks and become the Prime Minister. Using his administrative power and support within the army and Civil Guards (Aizsargi) he gathered enough power. To keep his actions in secret he derived the public attention to LFU proposed changes in Satversme that would greatly expand the presidential powers and weaken the parliament. While parliament was caught up in heated arguments about this proposal for months, Ulmanis and his supporters without any causalities and heavy resistance deposed the parliament and forced president Kviesis to accept his power.
The May 15 1934 was bright and sunny day. Tired from the quarreling parliament the majority of the Latvian society welcomed or at least did not mind the coup. Kārlis Ulmanis stopped the work of Satversme and the parliament and formed his own government. He promised to cancel the state of emergency and rewrite the Satversme. None of these promises were ever made and Ulmanis was the leader of Latvia until 1940.
What could happen if the coup never took place? Latvian parliaments would probably work the same way with constant inner rivaling. The pressure from the radical movements of both the wings would become more dangerous. The reports from local newspapers on 1933 show rise of anti-Semitism and national hate that would grow larger if not sustained by Ulmanis regime. The parliamentary system likely would adapt to these threats and find legal ways how to stop them. The falling popularity of the old parties may open doors for new movements. But, how would democratically elected Saeima would respond to threats of occupation by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940? As Saeima was always caught up in quarrels it could lead to all kinds of things. The outcome would be even more complicated as Saeima was already entered by the Soviet agents that would stir up the process. Also if the national radical movements and Baltic German Nazis would enter Saeima the reaction to Soviet threats would be even more dramatic. However, it’s doubtful that Latvia would rather silently submit to the Soviet Union, like Kārlis Ulmanis government. But as in case of Czechoslovakia the democratic parliament was not enough to rescue the country.