Campaign heats up, hinge party cools

  • 2002-09-26
  • Steven C. Johnson

With one week to go before general elections, Latvians appear set to dump the party that has anchored every one of the country's post-independence governments and send their longest serving prime minister packing.

An opinion poll released Sept. 24 gives Latvia's Way a paltry 5.5 percent of the vote, dangerously close to dipping below the 5 percent barrier necessary to enter Parliament.

The dismal showing has some party members, including Prime Minister Andris Berzins, whose two-and-a-half year-old coalition government is the longest serving in Latvian history, scratching their heads.

"Maybe it's because I haven't got too much time to travel around and campaign. I have to work," a smiling Berzins told The Baltic Times recently. (See interview, Page 18.)

The Riga-based Latvijas Fakti asked 1,000 people throughout Latvia Sept. 13-22 who they intend to support in the Oct. 5 election. The poll has a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

Latvia's Way was in sixth place, behind fellow center-right coalition partners the People's Party, which polled 14.1 percent support.

The New Era party, led by former central bank Governor Einars Repse, was on top with 15.4 percent.

In earlier polls, Latvia's Way had even dropped below the 5 percent mark.

Formed by a disparate group of independence crusaders, reformed apparatchiks, fledgling businessmen and Latvian émigrés, Latvia's Way won Latvia's first post-Soviet election in 1993, grabbing 36 seats in the 100-member Saeima (Latvia's parliament).

There it has remained, taking part in all 10 of the country's center-right governments since independence and setting Latvia on the course to NATO and European Union membership.

Four years ago, the party won 21 seats.

But today, with more than a decade of economic growth on its watch and the country on the threshold of joining both the EU and NATO - the latter is expected to offer an invitation in November - voters seem to be abandoning the party.In democracies, "voters like to change governments," said Daunis Auers, a political scientist at Latvia University. "Voters are simply getting jaded with Latvia's Way, the same way people in the U.K. did with the Conservatives. They ruled for 18 years, GDP was growing, housing values were going up, but voters were ready for a change."

And like the Conservatives, Latvia's Way's long tenure at the top is a double-edged sword: It can take credit for economic growth and foreign policy successes, but it gets all the blame as well.

While GDP has been steadily growing, GDP per capita remains a fraction of that in developed countries such as Germany or Denmark and lags behind other ex-communist nations such as the Czech Republic.

Pensions and salaries remain low; in 2001, the average monthly wage was 159 lats (269 euros) and pension just 58 lats.

Corruption scandals have inevitably cut deeper into support for ruling parities such as Latvia's Way than others. The anti-corruption message of Repse's New Era and his reputation as a strong central bank governor untainted by political scandals have translated into widespread support.

"People want things to get better faster than is usually possible," said Peteris Elferts, a top candidate on Latvia's Way's election list. "I don't think there's a pensioner anywhere in the world, for example, who is content with his pension."

Against these issues, NATO and the EU are far less resonant with average voters.

"What matters, what hits people at election time are pocketbook issues, and at this point, joining NATO or the EU is not something most people feel in their wallets," said Inese Birzniece, a Latvia's Way lawmaker in Parliament.

"Latvia's Way has pushed foreign policy aspects, but the average Latvian doesn't care much about that," Auers said. "Voters don't see a tangible benefit - at least not yet - from EU membership. Salaries are still below Western levels."

In some cases, the EU issue can drain rather than bolster support. According to public opinion polls, voters have been capricious about backing membership.

In a poll conducted in July, just 46 percent of Latvians asked said they wanted to join the bloc. Support in more enthusiastic EU candidates such as Hungary typically hovers around 70 percent.

"Nobody is waving the EU flag too strongly because support is usually below 50 percent," said Special Tasks Minister Roberts Zile, whose Fatherland and Freedom party, in government since 1995, has also seen a decline in support.

One party that has seen its fortunes rise - the union of Farmers and Greens - has tapped into increasing Euroskeptism to bolster its support. According to the poll, the party, which failed to get into the current Parliament, has 7.2 percent support.

"The results of 12 years of independence have not led to a better life for a lot of people," said party chairwoman Ingrida Udre. "Latvia's Way has been in every government, and life is still quite hard for very many people, especially in the countryside."

The Farmers and Greens are calling for a longer transition period before Latvia joins the EU, saying high production costs and taxes will render industry and agriculture incapable of competing on a common European market.

The party has also called for a better deal on agriculture, criticizing an EU plan to offer farmers in candidate countries just 25 percent of the subsidies enjoyed by their Western counterparts.

But Latvijas Fakti director Aigars Freimanis said the main factor in marshaling voter support remains advertising.

"The EU is not a hot topic. We asked people who told us they would vote for Latvia's Way whether they also wanted to join the EU and a large part of them said 'no,'" he said.

Neither Latvia's Way nor Fatherland and Freedom has run an aggressive campaign, and both lag far behind coalition partner the People's Party, whose campaign ads have been a constant presence in the media.

"I think Latvia's Way thought all their successes meant they would automatically be in every Parliament, so they took advertising for granted," said Aivars Ozolins, a political columnist at Latvia's biggest daily, Diena.

Another drawback, analysts say, is Latvia's Way's lack of leaders.

While Berzins has won points among politicians for keeping the peace among a fractious coalition, he is widely viewed as one of the country's less dynamic leaders.

Come election time, voters tend to flock to new personalities - Repse this year, People's Party leader Andris Skele in 1998, ex-Komsomol leader Ziedonis Cevers in 1995.

"We're not new and sexy, it's true," said Birzniece.

A late surge in advertising and the 12 percent of people who told Latvijas Fakti they had yet to make up their minds might be enough to keep Latvia's Way above the 5 percent barrier, but analysts say the party should not expect many seats.

"People do perceive them as stable, and I think when some of the undecided voters get to the polling booth, they may choose them," Freimanis said. "But I can't see more than 7 or 8 seats."

The undecided vote is what Berzins is banking on.

"I think a lot of people have yet to chose their position," he said. "I feel more than sure that we will be in the next government and that we'll play a leading role in the formation of a new coalition.