Analysis: Riga Mayor’s ‘selfie’ politics face gloom

  • 2018-02-28
  • Linas Jegelevicius

With new Saeima (Latvian Parliament) elections slated for Oct. 6 this year, Latvia’s political parties are gearing up although no big changes are expected in the country with a new ruling coalition in power. So far only three parties have overcome the five per cent electoral threshold, namely Riga Mayor Nils Ushakovs-led Saskana (Harmony) party with 20 per cent support, Zalo un Zemnieku Savieniba (the Union of Greens and Farmers) with 11.7 per cent and the uber-patriotic National Alliance All For Latvia! sitting in third place at seven per cent. The Baltic Times sat down with Filips Rajevskis, the Latvian political analyst and head of the PR company Mediju Tilts, to discuss the parties’ politics and their chances of winning or losing. 

With the elections looming, how do the parties stack up against each other and what trends have you noticed so far?

I think it’s important to understand that there are certain political problems within every Latvian political party. First, there’s a diminishing trust in all of them. Only three parties, the Harmony, the Greens and Farmers Union and the National Alliance All For Latvia! parties currently clear the five percent electoral barrier. As no Latvian party can expect to win a majority, all the parties are casting glances to the others in a bid to find common ground with one another and later to form a coalition, assuming that the post-electoral party standings will allow it. Even the three at the top are aware that the make-up of the new parliament will be diverse. The parties that don’t clinch five per cent still face prospects of winning seats in the new legislature, especially so the New Conservative Party and the Latvian Alliance of Regions, which currently has eight seats in the Saeima. The others are minnows, but, again, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to write them off.

With Harmony enjoying 20.7 per cent support, they’re a clear favourite. How do you explain the Latvian voters’ long-term affinity with the party?

The party does in fact face some huge problems. For the last 20 years they’ve had a monopoly on Russian-speaking voters. Until now, the party benefited from the situation that many Russian-speaking Latvians aren’t fully integrated into Latvian society. But as the process of integration progresses, slowly but moving forward all the same, Harmony will at some point in the future risk losing its monopoly. Many sociological surveys have been reporting the alarming signal that many Russian-speaking voters are ready to vote for other parties.

Last year I had a chance to speak to Nils Ushakovs, the mayor of Riga and Harmony’s leader. He took pride in having attracted Latvians to his party. So perhaps the flow goes both ways?

If we were to a look at the history of Latvian elections, Harmony’s always been what I call stigmatised, i.e. understood as a Russian and pro-Russian party. In Latvia everyone associates it with Russian-speaking Latvians and I don’t see any change in this perception taking place any time soon. I believe Ushakovs made a big mistake by spearheading and supporting the [2012] referendum on Russian becoming Latvia’s second official language. By the time of the ballot, Ushakovs had gained the trust of many Latvians. I personally believe the language referendum derailed his plans of becoming prime minister of Latvia someday. Around 270,000 voters supported the constitutional amendment, as many as those who vote for Harmony during an election.

But indeed, when it comes to the municipal council elections, many Latvians express their support for Harmony if only because in his role as mayor Ushakovs does a pretty decent job in the capital city. Rigans like the transportation benefits, the way the streets and squares are being taken care of and how the city gets decorated during holidays. In other words, being managed not too bad, Riga gives a boost to Ushakovs and his party. But only in the local elections, not nationally. This success isn’t necessarily about Ushakov’s managerial skills, Riga is a very good place for left-wing politics because of its wealth. The Riga model doesn’t apply anywhere else. Yet the longer Harmony stays around the more people will get tired of it. In addition, Harmony faces a new and ferocious rival in the form of the Latvian-Russian party, which with Tatjana Zdanoka as its chairwoman is very harsh and pronounced on the issues typically addressed by Harmony such as the status of the Russian language etc.

I don’t see the name of the new Latvian-Russian party in the polls...

So far they haven’t appeared in them. They’re small, but, interestingly, Ms Zdanoka holds a seat in the European Parliament. It means the party has its share of voters for whom it will have to vie with Harmony. Over the last couple of years, Harmony has backtracked on its positions as the staunch defender of local Russians’ rights. It did so thinking of its long-term political prospects. And they’re not very bright, considering the ongoing integration of the Russian community and the understanding that future politics won’t only be about language and minorities, for the party at least. 

You mentioned Ushakovs stood a good chance of becoming prime minister before the referendum on Russian as the country’s second official language. Do you see him in this office now?

No, it’s impossible. The current pendulum of Latvian political power will never give him a chance. The largest number of Saeima seats doesn’t give Harmony and its leader a big edge in forming a new coalition. The decisive factor here is getting the president’s clearance for it. And the president, Raimonds Vejonis, won’t give it because he doesn’t think that having Ushakovs as a new premier best serves the country’s interests.

How do you explain the popularity of the Green and Farmers Union?

As with Harmony, support for the Green and Farmers Union is historically determined. The party has long been the second party in the Latvian ruling coalition. It’s very pragmatic and down-to-earth due to its composition in which many heads of municipalities belong to it. This is due to the amendment, passed more than 10 years ago, stipulating that all municipalities with more than 5,000 voters on the ballot had to submit their candidates to a Saeima election in the multi-mandate constituency. That is how the party was born, and it’s become an umbrella for many rural politicians over the years. 

Back then, some of the largest cities, such as Ventspils and Liepaja, also had their local parties, with the name of the cities being part of their names. The Union of Greens and Farmers managed to attract them too, strengthening its position. And then again, talking about Latvian election history, roughly six years ago, there was an amendment which foresaw that the same candidate couldn’t be on the ballot in more than one constituency. Before the change, many popular politicians, who usually headed the party lists, were acting like locomotives pulling the parties along with them. Now, as a result of the reform, Latvia only has five electoral constituencies and the name of a candidate can only be put one on electoral ballot. 

Is it possible to expect a change in Latvian politics after the Saeima elections?

No, not at all. All the major parties are pro-EU and pro-NATO. In fact, the election will be very local, partly due to the mentioned changes in the election system. As for the Greens and Farmers, their list will again be full of local politicians whose names reappear from one election to the next. Interestingly, Harmony is playing a new tune in this election and sounds more pro-Western than ever. Not because Ushakovs, whom I call a ‘selfie’ politician, has fallen in love with the West, but because he rightly senses that he won’t be able to ride a horse saddled with [the issues of] the Russian ethnic minority and the Russian language forever.

Why do you call Ushakovs a ‘selfie’ politician?

Because he goes after every chance to have a photograph of himself taken with a Western leader standing next to him. When he went to Washington DC last December, he followed the pattern, aiming at a set of new photographs with US leaders, but they didn’t express any interest in meeting a politician from the municipal level. He’s a good mayor, but that’s it. And that’s his problem, which he understands himself.

Does the National Alliance All For Latvia! party have a chance in the elections?

It does, and the polls show it. I see it however as a suppressor of the more pro-right and radical parties on the right. Although the alliance is on the political edge, it’s not crossing the sensitive line of political correctness, however, meaning it doesn’t speak out against immigrants, for example. However, their support hovers at around seven per cent, which isn’t very impressive compared with what some of the other nationalist parties in the West have gained recently.

How do you explain the fact that none of the relatively new parties such as For!, KPL and the New Conservative Party got any voter attention in the recent surveys?

I explain it by the gap between Riga and what’s outside it. The media largely focuses on what’s happening in Riga, not in the rural provinces. However, this disparity can lead to some election surprises, I believe. However, they won’t be sweeping ones.