The past weeks have seen increasingly feverish rumors sweeping the Latvian establishment. Hefty men in gray suits and dour-looking matrons in garish blouses propping up the cafes of Old Riga's parliamentary quarter have grown positively red-faced at the prospect of a seismic shift in the political landscape. Yes, halfway through the current parliamentary term, and with local elections in six months, it is time for the political establishment to start the motions again: We are on the verge of seeing the formation of yet another "new" political party in Latvia.
Of course, the mooted party will not really be "new" in any substantive way. It is rumored that the public faces of the party (so important in a political system where voters support individual politicians rather than ideologically-rooted party organizations) will come from the existing political establishment - ranging from the youthfully jaunty and saucy ex-Minister of the Interior Maris Gulbis (a recent defector from the New Era fraction in Parliament), to the rather more haggard and tired Andrejs Pantelejevs, long-time kingmaker of Latvia's Way. And the same old shadowy figures from the incestuous Latvian business community are likely to sponsor this new undertaking. So in what way will this be a new political party? Well, it's all in the name - New Democrats.
Naturally, the use of "new" in the name of a party is hardly original. Many recently founded political parties in Latvia have used this trick - New Party, New Era, New Politics, and so on - hoping to tap into the large and continually growing group of disaffected voters. Politicians and gray cardinals (as party sponsors are known in the Latvian media) are well aware of the fact that all parliamentary elections have heretofore been won by parties founded less than 12 months before the ballot. Even though the next general election is still two years away, it already seems clear that this pattern is to continue.
Indeed, another "new" party (although it has not yet been legally registered) was founded in mid-September - New Politics. Intending to unite Latvians and Russian-speakers, the party contains both Latvian and Russian-speaking politicians of various political creeds. However, in the Latvian psyche it is already firmly linked with Russian voters, largely because the media has focused on the exceptionally uncharismatic Sergey Dolgopolovs, deputy mayor of Riga, as the party's leading light. While this has frustrated party leadership, there is nothing that they can do about it. This will not be the party that attracts - and integrates - the country's ethnic communities.
This means that things look rather problematic for Mr. Dolgopolovs, who will have to fight for the Russian vote in an already overcrowded marketplace. Survey polls have shown over and over again that ethnic Latvians will only vote for parties that obviously and directly represent their interests. Indeed, we can see that there are actually two party systems in Latvia: a Russian one, which had 25 percent of the electorate at the last election and will have about 30 percent at the next, and a Latvian one contesting the balance. Govern-ments are always formed from Latvian parties (although minority governments - such as the current Emsis government - do occasionally rely on the Russian parties for support), so New Politics is likely to play a marginal role in national politics - presuming, of course, that it even manages to hold itself together until the 2006 poll.
Thus we potentially already have two "new" parties entering the political sphere to add to the 60 already officially registered at the Ministry of Justice. The political arena is becoming increasingly crowded. Is there really room for these newcomers?
Why, of course. The great majority of the 60 registered parties do not actually function in any qualitative organizational sense. Many even fail to submit their annual accounts, as the law requires. Moreover, several of the political parties in the current government are effectively lame ducks, with little or no chance at being re-elected in the next parliamentary election. It will be surprising if Latvia's First Party (led by Deputy Prime Minister and wannabe oligarch Ainars Slesers) even contests the next election. The leaders of these parties are unlikely to give up politics entirely. Rather, at some point they will jump ship and hitch onto a "new" political party. And their existing sponsors will happily shift their support to the new but potentially winning team, thus maintaining an influence in the legislature and the government.
So it is business as usual in Latvia's political community. New parties come, and new parties go. However, it is the electorate that suffers, being forced to choose between shallow, unpredictable, personality-driven political parties that often operate according to the dictum of their sponsors rather than their conscience or constituency. This appears to be a never-ending circle that can only be fixed by major tinkering of the legislation governing party activity. Most importantly, restrictions on party advertising in the media during election campaigns should be introduced (following the lead of the majority of the EU-25) and state-financing of parties considered (an increasing trend in postcommunist states). This would mean that both party income and expenditure could be controlled. Of course, this would not immediately lead to the disappearance of party-business linkages, nor to the eradication of "hidden" advertising. But it would complicate both and ultimately lead to increased transparency. It may even disrupt the constant cycle of party formation, election and fragmentation. That really would be something "new." o
Daunis Auers is a lecturer in political science at EuroFaculty, University of Latvia