Polls say Latvians favoring new strongman

  • 2002-08-15
  • Philip Birzulis, RIGA
With six weeks to go before Latvia's parliamentary elections set for Oct. 5, it looks as if there's no danger of the country's volatile post-independence settling down.

Following significant power shifts at the last two elections, recent surveys indicate that the people will again give major support to newcomers while pounding some veterans.

According to an opinion poll conducted in late July by the SKDS opinion research center, the New Era Party founded late last year by former Bank of Latvia President Einars Repse is by far the most popular force. Twenty-one percent of those questioned said it would get their vote (see table).

It was followed by the main group lobbying for Russian-speakers, For Human Rights in a United Latvia, which had the support of 12.3 percent of respondents.

Also scoring just above 10 percent each were Latvia's Way and the People's Party, center-right parties in the current ruling coalition. Although this level of support would ensure their political survival, these ratings are down on their tallies at the last elections in 1998, when they racked up 18 percent and 23 percent respectively.

Next with 7.1 percent comes the alliance of the Latvian Farmers Union and the Green Party, two factions that have been around for years but have had no parliamentary representation recently. They are followed by the Social Democrats with 6.7 percent, who are in power in the municipal government of Riga but in opposition at the national level.

By far the biggest downturn since the last elections has been for the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom party. A member of the current government, its support level is hovering just below 5 percent, which is the cut-off barrier to win seats under the country's proportional voting system.

Pollsters asked 1,000 people aged 18-74 about their political preferences from July 17-26.

These figures suggest the 2002 elections will witness a similar phenomenon to the last two polls - that of a new political force headed by a charismatic leader cornering a lot of votes.

In 1995, right-wing maverick Joachim Siegerist grabbed a swag of seats, while in 1998, the People's Party under controversial former Prime Minister Andris Skele became the biggest faction in Parliament.

This year it looks like it may be Repse's turn.

However, some believe that there is nothing abnormal about these ups and downs. Anita Brauna, a political commentator for the Latvian daily newspaper Diena, said that they are common to all Eastern European countries where disgruntled voters look for a savior.

She believes that Repse's record of keeping the Latvian currency stable while in charge of the central bank and his populist rhetoric on issues like fighting corruption make him seem the man of the moment.

"The lack of stability is because democracy and the party system are still new," she said. "People feel the need to protest, and they seek a new, charismatic leader."

Brauna is not convinced that this is necessarily healthy. With regard to Repse, she said that he has, "complicated relations toward democracy." Specifically, she expressed doubts about his mixture of liberal economics and populist rhetoric, such as recent statements he made to the effect that prime ministers should have the right to fire any bureaucrats they like.

"Being Bank of Latvia president is not the same as being prime minister. At the bank, he could be a bit authoritarian, but you can't do that as prime minister," she said.

Krisjanis Karins, a New Era candidate and the head of the party's policy development group on agriculture, said that while he could not comment on Repse's behavior at the central bank, asserted that his style as leader of the party was "deeply democratic, based on the consensus model."

Karins also denied accusations that Repse's appearance on the political stage was breaking up the existing vote for right-wing parties. Rather, he said, New Era is the first truly liberal party in Latvia.

In higher education, for example, New Era will introduce fees for all students, but Karins said this would not increase the gap between rich and poor. Rather, the state would guarantee loans for students to take to whatever educational institution they choose, thereby giving them rather than the universities power over spending.

There are similar plans for medicine, under what Karins called "mandatory free health insurance." This would mean that state health funds would be channeled to competing private insurance funds

"Involving the private sector will increase efficiency and reduce costs," he said.

Despite Latvia's electoral system making it very hard for a single group to get an absolute majority, Karins said New Era was hoping for at least 51 out of 100 seats. He said that, while outsiders won't be are excluded from Cabinet posts, it will enable the party to push through its agenda and act "responsibly."

"Coalitions are not bad models, but they mean an escape from responsibility, since parties end up blaming each other for problems," he said.

Brauna predicts Latvia will end up with a center-right coalition again, led by Repse this time. She said that despite grumbles from other parties, they will end up doing a deal.

Brauna said she was skeptical about the chances of the Farmers' Union/ Greens ticket, citing other polls that give this group less than 5 percent of the vote. However, she said that it may have picked up some support because of its vocal stance against European Commission proposals to give new EU members fewer agricultural subsidies than existing ones.

As for the Fatherlanders, she believes a proportion of their electorate has defected to Repse, who is quite nationalistic on relations with Latvia's ethnic minorities.

And a string of scandals involving Fatherland officials has not helped the party's chances.