More drama and deadlock in Latvian coalition talks

  • 2011-10-05
  • Staff and wire reports

ZATLERS’ SURPRISE: Valdis Dombrovskis (left) would remain prime minister, though Valdis Zatlers unexpectedly announced that Harmony Center needs to be in the governing coalition.

RIGA - The Watergate-era “Saturday night massacre” has entered American history as a single, dramatic evening that changed the political game. Latvians have yet to find a name for what happened on Friday, Sept. 30, but most agree it has big implications for how their country will be governed.

That evening saw a meeting of the board of the Zatlers’ Reform Party to discuss the impasse in forming a coalition after the Sept. 17 elections. The nation, including most of the MPs elected from the ZRP, were surprised to learn on Saturday morning that the ZRP would be forming a coalition with Harmony Center, the party which gained the most seats in the recent polls, as well as offering Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis from the center right Unity party the chance to keep his job.
The move was unexpected because whether to include Harmony Center or the ethnic Latvian Nationalist block in any coalition had been the most controversial aspect of the coalition talks. The ZRP stated before the elections that its preferred partners were Unity and the nationalists. Many Latvians mistrust Harmony for its alleged ties to the Kremlin and a lukewarm stance on anti-corruption reforms.

After the decision, ZRP leader Valdis Zatlers told reporters that, with 31 seats in the 100-seat Saeima, Harmony was too big to leave outside the government, and its involvement would ease the passage of legal and economic reforms. And he said the proposed coalition would help to heal divisions between ethnic Latvians and the country’s large Russian-speaking minority.
“In forming a national consolidation government, where both opposing sides would be together, we are symbolizing a new direction,” he said. “It is an opportunity to achieve a turning point in politics and the consolidation of the community.”
Harmony leaders hailed the decision as “historic” and said it would contribute to a smooth government for Latvia over the next three years. Unity, however, has rejected the deal. On Oct. 4 its board restated its preference for a coalition with the ZRP and the nationalists and rejected ZRP’s proposal.

In theory, the ZRP and Harmony together have a slim majority in the Saeima and could form a government without a third partner. However, commentators have said that such a coalition would be unstable and would miss the experience of Dombrovskis, who is respected by international financial markets for his leadership during the economic crisis.
Moreover, a number of ZRP MPs have threatened to dump the party, which was established just two months before the polls, if it entered a coalition with Harmony. One of the leaders of the potential rebels, MP Valdis Liepins, says he will support the party board’s decision as long as Harmony acknowledges that Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union and commits itself to legal reforms and sensible economic policies. These issues have divided the various parties during the negotiations.

Should the deadlock continue, Latvia’s Constitution allows President Andris Berzins to nominate a neutral candidate to try and weld together a coalition. He has given the parties until Oct. 7 to find a solution, otherwise he may intervene. Berzins has said that he would like to see a coalition that is as broad as possible and that has an experienced politician at the helm. There has been speculation that former Foreign Minister Aivis Ronis may be given the nod to try and resolve the logjam.

The new Saeima will convene for the first time on Oct. 17.