LET’S TRY THIS AGAIN: Valdis Zatlers’ revolution has legs. With his proposal in May, while still president, to dismiss the Saeima after getting fed up with increasing corruption levels in the house, through the successful July referendum and snap Sept. 17 election, Latvia has a new government. After weeks of horseplay and gamesmanship among the politicians scrambling to be included in the governing coalition, a new team is ready for work. There is no time to waste.
RIGA - Latvia’s Saeima voted in a new government Oct. 25, entrusting Valdis Dombrovskis with a record third term as prime minister. The vote ends weeks of uncertainty following the Sept. 17 elections, but some question whether the new administration can move beyond the bitter, chaotic fashion it came into existence with.
Fifty-seven “yes” votes came from the three parties forming the core of the new coalition - Unity, the Zatlers Reform Party and the National Alliance - as well as six ex-ZRP deputies who support the government and one opposition MP who admitted to voting for the government by mistake. Thirty-eight MPs from Harmony Center and the Union of Greens and Farmers voted against.
In his address to the Saeima, Dombrovskis projected a sobering, rather than a triumphant, mood. Recalling the tortuous negotiations over the new coalition, the prime minister said the 11th Saeima was more divided than its predecessor and party intrigues had weakened citizens’ faith in the political process.
“Seeing the situation that has arisen, I am afraid that another emergency election in Latvia in the near future is not the stuff of science fiction,” said Dombrovskis. “Therefore, this coalition has a serious responsibility to ensure political stability and to work predictably and constructively.”
In the five weeks after the elections, the five parties that gained representation had great difficulties in agreeing on a coalition model. The center right Unity wanted to work with the ZRP and the National Alliance, but the ZRP and its leader Valdis Zatlers surprised the nation by favoring Harmony Center, which espouses redistributionist economic policies and gets most of its support from Russian-speakers. Zatlers stated that “only tanks can change this decision,” but he backed down when the prospect of dealing with Harmony threatened to split the ZRP.
The ZRP did eventually split on Oct. 16 when six of its MPs quit over an alleged lack of internal democracy in the party. Relations were patched up sufficiently to put the government through, but President Andris Berzins publicly expressed doubts over the stability of the coalition and suggested it be expanded. Dombrovskis has said that if the ZRP and its defectors cannot ensure stability for the government, he may invite the Union of Greens and Farmers into the coalition. Zatlers has fiercely opposed such a move because he considers the Union and its leader, Aivars Lembergs, to be corrupt oligarchs.
Dombrovskis said the government’s priority would be preparing next year’s budget. This will be the third consecutive budget in which cuts have to be made, and the task is not made easier by the continuing crisis in the eurozone. But he said the government remains committed to fiscal consolidation and ending Latvia’s international borrowing program.
“To those who propose that we extend, or do not conclude, the program with the international lenders, I say that that is also a choice, but one that sends a negative signal to international markets,” said the prime minister. “It would make it more expensive for Latvia to access finance on international markets, meaning more expensive loans for our companies, lost business opportunities, jobs not created, uncollected taxes and potentially un-indexed pensions.”
After the vote, Welfare Minister Ilze Vinkele declared that there would be changes in Latvia’s social security system. Promising to fight against “professional benefits recipients,” she said municipalities should be given more freedom to determine who genuinely needs assistance and motivate people to return to the workforce.
Opposition leaders have vowed to make life uncomfortable for the government. Valerijs Agesins, deputy leader of Harmony Center’s parliamentary faction, said that leaving Harmony and its 31 MPs out was a mistake.
“This coalition will not be able to work for three years, because it has been formed while ignoring the interests of 28 percent of voters,” he said. “This situation is a threat to democracy in Latvia and subjects the country to the risks of extremism and instability.”
Union of Greens and Farmers MP and former Environment Minister Raimonds Vejonis criticized the allegedly haphazard way in which the government declaration was put together, and questioned the credentials of some new cabinet ministers.
“Of course there are decent guys like Valdis Dombrovskis, Artis Pabriks and Gaidis Berzins, but it also has some ladies and gentlemen who do not deserve to be in a dream team,” he said.
In the final days before the vote, President Berzins caused some controversy by claiming to have “unflattering information” about some of the proposed new ministers. While he would not reveal details, it was speculated that he was specifically referring to candidates from the ZRP. However, Dombrovskis chose to ignore the president’s warnings and stuck with the cabinet ministers agreed to by the coalition parties.