Latvia and Iceland likely to hold early PR elections

by Eve Robert // Published February 11, 2009
What do Latvia and Iceland have in common? Both countries may have early elections in the coming months. And both use some forms of proportional representation to elect their Parliament.

Iceland and Latvia have been among the most crisis-stricken countries in Europe, and their coalition governments have not been able to resist the waves of public protests that sometimes even turned violent. In this respect, the current financial crisis and the growing public discontent worldwide highlights the fact that coalition governments – very commons in countries using proportional representation elections- are more responsive and accountable,. Consequently, these governments are much more vulnerable in times of deep loss of confidence and public dissatisfaction (recent polls have found that only one in ten residents of Latvia is satisfied with the government's work) – one could say, somehow, more democratic and reflective of the will of the people.. In Latvia, the four-party coalition cabinet of Ivars Godmanis remains in power for the time being, having survived a parliamentary vote of confidence on February 4. But the opposition still calls for an early general election – and this remains a likely option. If an early poll does indeed take place, it would be carried out under Latvia's proportional representation voting system. Members of the Saeima (Latvian Parliament) are elected by a relatively straightforward method of proportional representation in five multi-member constituencies. Voters cast a ballot for a constituency party list, and may indicate a preference (with a plus sign) for a candidate within a list, or reject a candidate therein by crossing his or her name out; the number of votes cast for a candidate equals the number of votes polled by the list in which he or she appears, minus the number of ballot papers in which his or her name has been crossed out, plus the number of ballot papers in which a preference has been indicated in his or her favor. In order to participate in the distribution of Saeima seats, party lists must obtain at least five percent of all valid votes cast at the national level, including blank ballots.

In Iceland, the outgoing center-right coalition recently collapsed, and was replaced by a center-left government, with a new prime minister, the social democrat Johanna Sigurdardottir. This coalition does not have a clear majority in Parliament and might not last very long. Early elections are likely to take place in April. If they do indeed take place, it would be carried out under an original proportional representation system. The 63 members of the Althing (Parliament) are elected in 6 districts through a complex mechanism designed to ensure that the number of seats of each party is exactly proportional to the number of votes it got nationally. In this purpose, most seats are allocated to a specific district, and then some additional seats are allocated to the parties as a balancing-out system. This system allows both geographic representation (districts) and full representation (the results are fair, exactly proportional to the national distribution of votes). These examples once again highlight the fact that "proportional representation" is not a monolith, but a term capturing an almost infinite number of possible electoral systems, widely used around the world (much more common that winner-take-all systems), and that they generally allow for fair results and responsive governments.