• 2006-10-04

cartoon by Jevgenij Cheksters

The parliamentary elections in Latvia are different from those in Estonia and Lithuania in that left-of-center parties representing minority (ethnic Russian) interests usually gather one-fourth of the total vote, while the majority goes to a mixed bag of "Latvian" parties. This means that when the time comes to form a government, the centrist and right-wing parties are essentially forced to cull together a coalition of 51 out of 75 or so seats in control of these Latvian parties. It is not an easy task, and this is why the eighth Saeima (Latvia's parliament) has had two minority governments, including the current one.

There's no reason to expect that the next Saeima, which Latvians will vote on this weekend, will be any different. In fact, pundits have painted this election in varying colors of negativity. As opposed to previous parliamentary elections, this year there are no new parties or personalities that have the charisma to bring apathetic voters to the polling stations. People will stay home, many analysts believe, and as a result the leftist forces will grow comparatively stronger.

We don't think so. There were similar predictions on the eve of Latvia's crucial EU membership referendum in 2004, and voter participation turned out to be quite robust. And what, politically speaking, could be more boring than voting for European Parliament?

On the contrary, the intrigue in these elections 's if there is any intrigue at all 's is how the center and right-wing parties 's New Era, the People's Party, For Fatherland and Freedom, the Greens and Farmers' Union and Latvia's First/Latvia's Way 's will divide power and form a government after President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has nominated a prime minister. There is a lot of bad blood between some of these parties, and more to the point, a lot of resentment among the populace for four years of legislative incompetence displayed by all the above. The casino-zoning fiasco on the part of the People's Party is a prime example of the bad legislation that the current government is particularly talented at putting together. Latvia's First Party's homophobic initiatives are another. Then there's the rotten apple of the Greens and Farmers 's Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs. He is under investigation for massive fraud, yet the party puts him at the top of its ballot. If voters want a reason why not to put a checkmark next to a list, there it is.

It is worth pointing out that this year much fuss is being made by NGOs and analysts about the amount of soft money parties are dumping into their pre-election campaigns. We would not exaggerate the issue, since this is a problem in many developed democracies (look at the United States), and second, the criticism presumes that voters can be won over simply by smiling faces on posters and the TV screen. Latvian voters, we should hope, are more astute than that.