Latvian politicians go for right wing coalition

  • 2011-10-12
  • By Philip Birzulis

ALL FOR ONE: Unity, Zalters’ Reform Party (ZRP) and the national alliance All for Latvia!-For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (VL-TB/LNNK) came to an agreement Monday night after lengthy discussions on joining forces in a three-party, center-right government.

RIGA - Latvia’s leaders have finally settled on a model for the new government, ending weeks of uncertainty following the Sept. 17 emergency elections. The chosen coalition promises to continue the reforms begun by the previous administration, but leaves Harmony Center and its Russian-speaking constituency out in the cold.

On Oct. 10, leaders of the Zatlers’ Reform Party, the Unity party and the right-wing National Alliance announced they would form a government headed by Latvia’s current Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis. The coalition will control 56 seats in the 100-member Saeima and should easily gain approval after the legislature’s first sitting on Oct. 17. Following the decision, the three parties issued a declaration committing the new government to reforms of the education, tax and electoral systems.
They have also stated they will continue efforts to reduce the power of money in Latvian politics. The recent polls came after a decision in May by then-President Valdis Zatlers to call a referendum to dismiss the Saeima. Zatlers had accused the previous legislature of being subservient to “oligarchs” and subsequently formed the ZRP to contest the polls with a reformist platform.
Despite the failure to find a way of including both Harmony and the Alliance in a government, Zatlers said he still believed a broader coalition would be good for Latvia. But he promised the new administration would consist of “professional people in a professional government.”

Harmony Center leader and Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs said he was disappointed by the decision and predicts that the Nationalist Alliance will hinder attempts to increase social cohesion in Latvia. He also said that Harmony would be a tough opposition and would do what it could to demonstrate the new government’s impotence.

“It’s a pity that we have elected the 11th Saeima in 2011, but we will have to elect the 12th Saeima in 2012,” he told reporters.
The new coalition is yet another surprise in an eventful year. On Oct. 1, the ZRP declared after a Friday night meeting that it would form a coalition with Harmony, which emerged from the polls as the biggest party in the new Saeima with 31 seats. This drove a wedge between the ZRP and Unity. The two parties share a similar ideology and were considered natural partners after the elections. However, many Unity members could not stomach a coalition with Harmony due to its ties with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and a questionable attitude toward anti-corruption reforms. The Civic Union faction of Unity seemed likely to leave the party rather than become partners with Harmony.

After the Oct. 1 events, Zatlers said that “only tanks could make us reverse the decision” to include Harmony in the government. But while no armored vehicles were observed in Riga’s streets, Zatlers appears to have changed his mind. Roberts Kilis, one of the ZRP’s negotiators in the coalition talks, told The Baltic Times that pragmatism won the day. Kilis said that many ZRP members didn’t fancy a coalition with only Harmony, and the prospect of being in opposition if Unity tried to form a coalition involving the oligarch-tainted Union of Greens and Farmers would be a betrayal of the ZRP’s principals.

But he added that Valdis Zatlers had played a clever game. The prospect of not being in the coalition had persuaded Unity and the Alliance to make concessions to the ZRP. The coalition-forming agreement commits the three parties to policies cherished by the ZRP, such as introducing direct presidential elections and overhauling funding for higher education on the basis of a model used in Australia. The ZRP also made the Alliance promise it will abandon its campaign to only allow state funding for Latvian-language schools and that its leaders will not take part in a controversial gathering of SS veterans held on March 16 of each year.

Kilis said the coalition would offer Harmony influential committee posts in the new Saeima to encourage it to be constructive. Moreover, the ZRP’s top ranks include members of ethnic minorities such as economist Vjaceslavs Dombrovskis (no relation to the prime minister), and Kilis hopes the party’s emphasis on ideas rather than ethnicity may broaden its appeal beyond ethnic Latvians.

“There are Russians with more liberal or centrist views who are currently not being represented, and we must address to the Russian-speaking audience,” he says.

Not everyone shares Kilis’ upbeat assessment of ZRP founder Valdis Zatlers. Political scientist Ivars Ijabs thinks that the ex-president has acted in a chaotic fashion since firing the Saeima in May.
 “The issue is that Valdis Zatlers doesn’t know what he wants,” he says. “He thinks he’s Napoleon when he’s actually just a mediocrity.”

Ijabs predicts the ZRP will not get its way on direct presidential elections because such a constitutional amendment would need the support of two thirds of MPs. If Kilis becomes Minister of Education he may be able to get his reforms through, but Ijabs believes he will face an uphill fight with the bureaucracy.

However, he thinks the government has “good prospects” of lasting the three years until the next election. Ijabs thinks the Alliance’s leaders will find a compromise regarding March 16, such as attending a private commemorative event rather than joining the procession to Riga’s Freedom Monument.

“They have work to do to explain to their electorate that moderation is needed,” he says.