Repse's team: coalition or collapse

  • 2002-11-14
  • Daunis Auers
Latvia finally has a new government. More than a month after polling day, the center-right coalition of New Era/First Party/Green-Farmers Union/For Fatherland and Freedom was voted in last week.

However, it is a government with a small majority, riven by internal conflict and staffed with young and inexperienced ministers. The unlikely glue to the four party coalition is the haughtily aloof figure of Prime Minister Einars Repse. Meanwhile a large opposition, with greater parliamentary and cabinet experience, impatiently hovers in the wings. How long can this government possibly last?

The government has a wafer-thin majority, commanding 55 of 100 seats. The long-standing animosity between the two leaders of the New Era and People's Party made any agreement between the two largest center-right parties impossible.

Instead, Repse chose to form a smaller coalition with three other center-right parties. However, the deep divide between two of the parties - the Christian democrat First Party and the Green-Farmers Union -- brings into question the stability of the government. The vitriolic, often personal insults exchanged between the two (who represent different economic lobbies in Latvia) almost led to the collapse of coalition talks on the eve of the opening of the new parliament.

Those differences have been temporarily papered over but not resolved. Moreover, there has been a disturbing silence from the fourth party, For Fatherland and Freedom, notoriously fickle partners, and the source of the collapse of two of the last three governments. While currently licking their wounds over their comparative electoral failure (a halving of their parliamentary mandate), they are unlikely to remain so pensive and passive for long. Expect an early return to their feisty best.

This is also a youthful government, in both age and experience. Only three of the 18-member cabinet have previous ministerial experience. The key Finance Ministry portfolio is under the control of 31-year-old Valdis Dombrovskis who has an academic background in physics and engineering. While he has spent four successful years at the Bank of Latvia, latterly as an economist in the monetary policy department, he has little management or budgetary experience. Yet starting last week, he is in control of the nation's finances.

The equally youthful interior minister, Maris Gulbis, has a wealth of experience in building up the company register in Latvia. Now, he takes over a monolithic and reactionary ministry still largely rooted in the Soviet era. Introducing the needed reforms will not be an easy task.

As a result, much will depend upon Repse. As one of the founders of the People's Front in the 1980s, he served as a deputy in the Latvian Supreme Soviet and voted for independence. However, he has spent the previous 10 years cosseted within the luxuriously high walls of the Bank of Latvia developing and maintaining an internationally lauded monetary policy and currency reform.

In the election campaign, he made much of his personality as a guarantee of good government. His people management skills will be stretched to the limit in this fractious coalition. The savvy political experience of Latvia's Way, the core of every government coalition since 1993, will be sorely missed.

Despite its size, the parliamentary opposition is likely to be weak. The left-wing pro-Russian For Human Rights in a United Latvia, does not sit comfortably with the conservative, nationalist People's Party. For Human Rights' continuing opposition to NATO membership keeps it on the fringes of Latvian politics.

Meanwhile, the People's Party sports a program similar to the current coalition. As such, it will struggle to oppose the government on policy and may be forced to score points in less savory ways.

This is an important 12 months for Latvia with both EU and NATO membership up for grabs. If he is to enjoy the upcoming glamorous photo opportunities in Brussels and Washington, Mr. Repse must, above all else, resolve the internal conflicts and contradictions of his coalition government. o

Daunis Auers is EuroFaculty Political Science lecturer and is writing his doctoral thesis on party politics at SSEES, University College London.