Local Government in Latvia

Author:Angel-Manuel Moreno

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1. Brief historical evolution

The Republic of Latvia was founded as an independent country on 18 November 1918. Independence was interrupted by the Soviet period and renewed in 1991. Latvia has a rather long history of development of local government. The legal acts on local self-governments that were adopted immediately after the formation of the new country in 1918 were quite democratic and included female suffrage. At the local level, voters elected a council, and the councilors elected the chairperson of the council from among themselves. In May 1934, when the autocratic rule was established, the councils of cities were dissolved. Rural municipal councils were not abolished, but their functions were reduced. The tradition of more or less democratic local governments in Latvia between the two World Wars was interrupted by the Soviet occupation. Though citizens formally elected local councils, in practice, local government in the true sense of the term did not exist during this period.

After Latvia’s renewed independence, the first laws on local governments were based on legal rules of the First Republic, but in 1993 the national government approved a key strategic policy document called the ‘Concept of Local Government Reform of the Republic of Latvia’, and with its implementation the new system of local governments was developed. The main features of this reform of local government were:

– a new Act on local councils elections
– a new Act on local government, common for both rural and urban municipalities and regional (district) governments
– administrative territorial reform
– improvement of the local budget system
– organisation of the system of negotiations between the central and local governments.

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Until July 2009, a two-tiered system of local government existed in Latvia, and the administrative territorial division was a holdover from the Soviet period. Prior to July 2009 the total number of local governments in Latvia was 548, including 26 district governments (rajons) and 522 local governments [seven «republican» cities, 50 towns, 41 novads (municipalities) and 424 pagasts (rural municipalities)]. The second tier of administrative territorial division embraced 33 administrative territories, those of districts and republican cities. The latter were included simultaneously in both tiers of administrative territorial division.

In 1998, the Administrative Territorial Reform Act was passed, and from then until 2009 several cases of voluntary amalgamation of local authorities occurred. The reform was finished in July 2009 with a new administrative territorial division that was accepted by the Parliament. The number of local authorities was significantly reduced (to 118), and the district level as the second tier was abolished entirely. The issue of administrative territorial division at the regional level after the reform in 2009 is still on the agenda of the government and the Parliament: as yet, there has been no agreement among the political parties on the questions of whether Latvia needs second-tier governments at all and what their numbers and competences might be.

2. Basic facts and figures

A single-tiered system of local government has existed in Latvia since the implementation of the administrative territorial reform in July 2009. Immediately following the reform, there were 118 local government units, but after the splitting process of one municipality in 2010 and elections in the two new territories, as of 2011 there are 119 local authorities in the country: nine «republican» cities (repub-[c4f][c4c][c4e][c44][c56][c03][c53][c4c][c4f][c56][c0f][c57][c44]) and 110 municipalities (novads). Pursuant to the Law, a «republican» city is characterized by the following: it has developed commercial activities, transport and community facilities, and a social infrastructure; it has a significant complex of cultural institutions; and it has at least 25,000 permanent residents.

The new division of local authorities into republican cities and novads does not ensure the division of territories into urban and rural territories: in many novads, towns with an urban living environment and infrastructure are included as territorial units and populated areas. Thus, part of the novads could be classified as mixed urban-rural territories. The whole territory of a republican city may be characterized as a populated area, while populated areas in the novads territories are towns and villages. After the reform, there are still significant disparities in size among municipalities. In terms of population, the largest local government is the capital city, Riga (706,413), with one-third of the entire population of Latvia. The smallest municipality, Baltinavas novads, has 1,364 residents. The total population in Latvia in early 2010 was 2,248,374.1

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Table 1

Number of local authorities by population (source: Central Statistical Bureau)

Number of residents in local government Republican cities Novads Total
Up to 2,000 4 4
2,000-5,000 34 34
5,000-10,000 38 38
10,000-20,000 17 17
20,000-30,000 2 13 15
30,000-50,000 2 4 6
50,000-100,000 3 3
100,000-150,000 1 1
More than 700,000 1 1
Total in Latvia 9 119

To ensure the planning of regional development, coordination and cooperation among local authorities, five «planning regions» have been established in Latvia: those of Riga, Vidzeme, Kurzeme, Zemgale and Latgale. Development of the planning regions had already started in the second half of the 1990’s as an initiative of local governments, but the central government approved them only in 2003. Planning regions are not self-governments, and the question as to their future is on the agenda of the government and the Parliament.

3. Legal framework of local self-government
3.1. The European Charter and the national constitution

The presentation of the current legal scheme of local government and local autonomy in Latvia must begin with a reference to the European Charter of Local Self-Government (ECLSG). On 22 February 1996, the Parliament of Latvia (Saeima) ratified 26 out of 30 paragraphs of the ECLSG. On 22 April 1999, the Saeima accepted three more paragraphs. Latvia still has not accepted Art. 8.9 of the Charter (‘For the purpose of borrowing for capital investment, local authorities shall have access to the national capital market within the limits of the law.’). Although the Charter was ratified by Latvia only in 1996, its principles have been incorporated into domestic legislation since 1994. As a matter of fact, the strategic policy document called the «Local Government Reform Conception», accepted by the government in 1993, was based on principles of the Charter.

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Formally speaking, upon its ratification the Charter should have been automatically transposed into Latvian domestic law. However, as noted above, some principles (articles) of the ECLSG had already been incorporated into legislation before the legal ratification; some principles were incorporated later—mostly within the development process of the local government system—; and some principles have still not been incorporated into the legislation. What is more, some domestic legislative norms even contradict the Charter or do not follow the ECLSG’s principles. There are cases in which local authorities the Constitutional Court have used the Charter as a direct legal source. In this sense, the Association of Local and Regional Governments of Latvia is the main actor in the law-making process that monitors and controls compliance of the draft laws with the Charter. However, it is noticeable that the Association does this if it is beneficial for local governments; otherwise, the Charter is not mentioned.

In 2011, the ratification of Art. 8.9 of the Charter was included on the agenda of the current government of Latvia (in power since November 2010), as it is mentioned in the Declaration of the Government. However, the signature and ratification of the Additional Protocol of the Charter is not on the government’s agenda; moreover, local authorities have not expressed any interest in it. One of the Charter’s principles which has not been implemented is the one enshrined in its Art. 2, according to which local self-government should be recognised in the national constitution. In Latvia, the principles of local self-government are still not recognized in the Constitution (Satversme). Local government is certainly mentioned in Arts. 25, 101 and 104 of...

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