Chaos returns as new Latvian Saeima convenes

  • 2011-10-19
  • By Philip Birzulis

RIGA - Just when it seemed that Latvia might finally have a government, bitter feuding has thrown the political scene into confusion again. The first sitting of the 11th Saeima on Oct. 17 was clouded by a split in the Zatlers Reform Party (ZRP) and a humiliating defeat for its founder Valdis Zatlers, leaving an irritated nation still wondering who will take the reins.
Weeks of uncertainty after Latvia’s Sept. 17 emergency elections appeared to be resolved on Oct. 10, when three right-wing parties announced they would try to form a government under current Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis. The center-right Unity party, the ZRP and the right wing National Alliance would muster 56 votes in the 100-member legislature and leave Harmony Center and the Union of Greens and Farmers in opposition.

But these plans were thrown into doubt on Oct. 16 when six ZRP MPs - Klavs Olsteins, Elina Silina, Gunars Rusins, Janis Upenieks, Viktors Valainis and Janis Junkurs – said they were quitting the party. The defectors’ leader, Olsteins, said the move was a protest against undemocratic decision making within the ZRP and the excessive influence of “grey cardinals.”
“Initially I believed in the ideals promoted by Mr. Zatlers, but unfortunately today I am disappointed,” Olsteins said in an interview with the daily Diena.

Silina told the daily NRA that the breaking point for the six was that MPs were forced to support the appointment of ministers who they weren’t familiar with, such as Edgars Rinkevics, former head of the State President’s Chancellery. She did not agree with the journalist’s assertion that a member of parliament should be aware of figures like Rinkevics.
“I think we have done a big favor for the ZRP because they will finally understand that they have to listen to the people they have taken on board and introduce democratic decision making processes,” she said.
The remaining ZRP members have accused the six of treason and say they were motivated by a desire to get jobs in the new government. MP Valdis Liepins told The Baltic Times that internal democracy in the ZRP is improving as leaders and MPs debate contentious issues. Liepins has been outspoken on questions like the ZRP’s potential coalition partners, but argues that this is normal politics.

“We are moving in the right direction,” he said. “I can do more by staying in the party than by getting out, and just because I have strong views doesn’t mean that I will leave.”
By reducing the ZRP to 16 MPs, the defection has altered the balance of power in the legislature. This became apparent in the first important vote by the new Saeima, when despite being the only candidate, ex-president Valdis Zatlers was defeated in two secret ballots for the speaker’s position. Zatlers got only 46 and 45 votes in the respective ballots, well short of the 56 that he could have expected with the whole of the new coalition behind him.

Confusingly, after the votes Olsteins said the six defectors had voted for Zatlers, opening up the possibility that supposed allies wanted to teach him a lesson. There have been reports that Unity politicians are fuming about Zatlers’ perceived arrogance in the protracted coalition talks and rumors have circulated that Unity may have had a hand in splitting the ZRP. Diena reported |Oct. 19 that two Unity MPs, Inguna Ribena and Janis Reirs, admitted to voting against Zatlers. Olsteins himself switched from Unity to the ZRP after President Zatlers failed to get re-elected in early June. On Oct. 18, Unity leader Solvita Aboltina was re-elected to the Speaker’s position with 51 votes.

Despite the atmosphere of mistrust, on Oct. 18, the three parties and six defectors signed an agreement to forge ahead with the coalition. Valdis Zatlers said he could work with the six if it meant getting a new government in place, because its proposed ministers form a highly professional team. However, President Andris Berzins must give the go ahead to a leader to form a government, and while he has expressed his support for Dombrovskis, on Oct. 18 he told the prime minister that he had no faith in the stability of a government based on the six defectors. Without the six, the coalition would only have 50 seats, and the president has urged that a broader coalition be considered. Dombrovskis has said this could mean inviting in the Union of Greens and Farmers. However, in the election campaign the ZRP said it drew a “red line” at cooperating with the Union, which it considers to be under the thumb of “oligarchs.” Latvia’s present political turmoil originated in the decision back in May by President Zatlers to dismiss the 10th Saeima, which he accused of being under the influence of corrupt businessmen.

For their part, Unity and the National Alliance refuse to cooperate with Harmony Center. The political base of Latvia’s large Russian-speaking community, Harmony emerged from the Sept. 17 polls with 31 seats, and its exclusion from the potential government has been controversial. About 1,000 Harmony supporters staged a noisy demonstration outside the Saeima on Oct. 17, accusing Latvian politicians of ethnic discrimination. The previous week, Russian-language media outlets published appeals to President Berzins to force Harmony’s inclusion in the government.

Harmony’s opposition role is one of the constants of Latvian politics. Another recurring theme is the corrupting influence of money, and the defection of the ZRP six is another chapter in this saga, according to Iveta Kazoka, a researcher at the political think tank Providus. While she acknowledged that the ZRP had demonstrated “poor maneuvering and appalling communication skills” in the post-election period, Kazoka mostly blames Olsteins for the split. She said that the six got into the Saeima thanks to well-funded private campaigns, and now the sponsors are exerting control over “their” MPs. Kazoka said the ZRP has ignored warnings about “professional infiltrators with their own interests,” and that Olsteins in particular may be under the sway of business interests backing Unity. Political honesty is a relative concept, she believes.
“Unity is not as bad as the Union of Greens and Farmers, but getting rid of the oligarchs does not mean that Latvian politics is totally clean,” Kazoka said.

Nevertheless, Kazoka is still hopeful that the proposed coalition could be stable, since the lack of secret ballots for future decisions could reduce the incidence of back stabbing. But everything depends on Berzins nominating Dombrovskis or another candidate for PM, and every day of delay contributes to the instability, she said.