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Latvians vote for cleaner and more cosmopolitan politics

  • 2011-09-21
  • By Philip Birzulis

HATS OFF TO THE WINNNERS: It was a good showing in the 11th Saeima elections on Saturday for Zatlers’ Reform Party leader Valdis Zatlers (left) and Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs, of Harmony Center. Harmony Center took the highest vote count of the day, with 28.37 percent of the ballot, as Zatlers’ Reform Party piled up 20.82 percent of the tally.

RIGA - Incumbency may have its advantages, but in Latvia’s snap election on Sept. 17, it was far more of a burden. In the climax to a turbulent year, voters gave a dressing down to the parties in power and rearranged their country’s politics.
Analysts believe a relatively low turnout of 59.5 percent most hurt the so-called “oligarch” parties. The Slesers Reform Party of former Transport Minister Ainars Slesers got just 2.4 percent of the vote, falling well short of the five percent required to get seats in the Saeima. The Union of Greens and Farmers, the party of powerful Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, saw its support almost halved.

They also sent a message to Unity, the party of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, which is 13 seats poorer than before. After winning the 2010 election, it suffered from internal disputes and an awkward coalition with the Union of Greens and Farmers. Even the citizens who voted for Unity showed displeasure with some of the party’s leading figures. Under the Latvian voting system, voters can place a plus or a minus sign next to candidates they like or dislike, influencing the respective candidate’s position on the party list. Thus, Foreign Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis, Culture Minister Sarmite Elerte and Justice Minister Aigars Stokenbergs all failed to get elected. But despite their role in implementing tough economic reforms, both Dombrovskis and Finance Minister Andris Vilks received a respectable plurality of pluses.

With the benefit of not having been in power and presenting a strong Latvian nationalist message, the National Alliance doubled its representation to 14 seats. But the biggest of the so-called “Latvian parties” is now the Zatlers’ Reform Party, which picked up 22 seats. Formed by ex-president Valdis Zatlers after a July 23 referendum dismissed the previous Saeima, it offered an anti-corruption platform and a slate of candidates with little previous political experience. While some accused Zatlers of stealing Unity’s electorate, the two center right parties in fact have nine more MPs than Unity had alone, indicating that the anti-corruption and economic reform agenda has been strengthened.

The largest party in the Saeima is now Harmony Center. Originating as a party representing Latvia’s Russian-speakers, some believe that up to 25 percent of its supporters may now be ethnic Latvians. Its overall share of the vote increased by just three percent compared with 2010, and it has to convince potential coalition partners that it can work constructively with them, despite the economic populism and ethnically divisive rhetoric it employed in the campaign. However, this is Harmony’s best chance to get into power after a decade in opposition. 

Negotiations on forming a coalition began soon after the results were announced and are expected to last several weeks. The options are limited by the fact that no one particularly wants to work with the Union of Greens and Farmers, and the National Alliance and Harmony Center hate each other. This leaves three combinations delivering 51 or more votes in the 100-member Saeima.

Firstly, Zatlers and Harmony Center together have 53, but most analysts believe such a narrow coalition would be unstable. More likely scenarios involve Zatlers, Harmony Center and Unity (73) or Zatlers, National Alliance and Unity (56).
None of the key parties have as yet renounced the claim of their declared candidates for prime minister. However, there have been suggestions that Dombrovskis may be left in the top job to ensure stability, or that a “professional” outsider may be brought in as a compromise. Representatives for Zatlers and Harmony have described their initial talks as harmonious, with some differences on key economic issues. For example, Harmony leader Nils Usakovs has suggested Latvia should hold a referendum before joining the euro, an idea rejected by Zatlers and Unity.

Iveta Kazoka, a researcher at the public policy think tank PROVIDUS, has been impressed by the tone of the initial talks.
“It is encouraging that at present they are talking about their programs instead of haggling over who will hold what position, although we will have to wait and see if the reality matches this image,” she says. “It is pretty clear that Zatlers and Unity will work together, even if their relationship is not as rosy as it might appear.”

Regarding the third coalition party, Kazoka believes that both Harmony Center and the National Alliance have roughly even chances. However, she sees signs that perhaps the Alliance feels more comfortable in opposition, and its failure to control the public utterances of its members is not helping its cause. After the election, Alliance member Janis Iesalnieks sent a Twitter message asking, “Why should we take notice of the votes of the illegal colonists?” Harmony seized on this as proof that the Alliance is unfit for office.

Kazoka thinks the mainstream Latvian parties are overcoming their reluctance to deal with Harmony Center. But substantial questions remain about what Harmony really plans to do if it gets power.
“It is a very complex choice, but both Zatlers and Unity no longer see working with Harmony Center as taboo,” she says. “But the question is whether Harmony is the best choice for making radical economic reforms or on justice issues. Before, they were closer to the oligarchs.”

According to Andrei Shvedov, editor-in-chief of the Russian language newspaper Telegraf, Harmony has a better chance of entering the coalition than after the 2010 polls. However, he believes that it must compromise on its economic views.
“Such different economic views cannot coexist, and Harmony Center has to change something,” he said. “You can’t have a bigger deficit, and Unity and Zatlers have the logical position.”

Shvedov thinks that in the more pragmatic post-election climate Harmony is capable of changing, and despite its populist promises it can get its supporters to accept further belt tightening if they feel included in the process. Otherwise, they will take a skeptical position and it will be more difficult to accept tax rises and reduce the size of the grey economy. Shvedov believes that differences over whether Latvia was occupied are secondary.
“I hope we can find a common position, but right now the main thing is economics,” he says. “Let’s put the other things aside for two or three years and decide on them later.”

Casting a shadow over Harmony’s success is what some see as the extreme bias of the Russian-language media. Kazoka believes that with honorable exceptions, such as the TV5 channel which held debates involving all parties, Russian coverage so favored Harmony Center that it verged on “propaganda rather than objective journalism.” Furthermore, without giving details, she revealed that media analyses conducted by Providus indicate corruption in the Russian-language media.
“Some of the conversations we have had with some Russian media representatives and politicians points to the brutal corruption of some of these media,” she says.

With the exception of the daily NRA, which blatantly favors the Union of Greens and Farmers, Kazoka said the Latvian language media was much more balanced. But the Latvian press is not totally free of scandals. In October 2009, senior staff quit the daily Diena after accusing the paper’s new owners – whose identity has never been revealed - of interfering in editorial decisions. Pauls Raudseps, formerly the opinion page editor at Diena and today a commentator with the weekly news magazine Ir, believes this could be changed if a new media law currently in the committee stage in the Saeima is adopted. Raudseps says the law would require anyone holding more than a 25 percent stake in a media outlet to reveal their identity and is similar to media concentration laws elsewhere in Europe.