Latvian shenanigans on eve of accession

  • 2004-03-04
  • By Daunis Auers
Prime Minister Einars Repse resigned three weeks ago, yet Latvia is still some way from having a stable new government. Political parties continue to feud, scheme and fracture, while accession to the European Union edges ever closer. Why is the Parliament so polarized?

The Repse government collapsed because of a simmering conflict between him and his deputy, Ainars Slesers. A falling out between the two had seemed inevitable; both are committed Christians and individually wealthy, but that is where the similarities end. Repse was elected on a platform of personal honesty and prioritizing the fight against corruption and minimizing the influence of Latvian "oligarchs" on the state. Meanwhile Slesers has spent the last few years turning himself into an oligarch, creating a series of client political parties - the New Party in 1998 and Latvia's First Party in 2002 - and developing his business interests.
In retrospect, it was a surprise to see Repse and Slesers form a bloc after the 2002 election. In any case, the vitriol and timing of the feud, which ignited after the Euro-referendum poll closed on the evening of Sept. 20 and culminated in Repse's dismissal of Slesers in January, came as a surprise. The resulting political situation appears to be the most unstable since the fractured Parliament of 1995, and this required several months and several attempts to finally elect a government coalition.
Indeed, these last three weeks have seen the Latvian political establishment at its worst. The People's Party, the Green/ Farmers Union and Latvia's First Party were bitter rivals in the 2002 election. Now, however, all three have puzzlingly put aside their differences and formed the central bloc building the next government. Frustratingly for them, however, they only have a combined total of 46 votes, five below the 51 required for a bare parliamentary majority. And this despite the recent acrimonious defection of five Russian-speaking deputies from the National Harmony Party to Latvia's First Party.
So the parliamentary support of New Era and/or the more nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom is needed. However, a bitter Repse has refused to countenance going into another coalition with Slesers' Latvia's First Party, and For Fatherland and Freedom is well aware of the damage that a coalition with an Latvia's First Party containing several Russian-speaking deputies would do to its already shrinking Latvian nationalist voter base. The People's Party, the Greens/Farmers Union and Latvia's First Party have debated the prospect of forming a minority government, but this would rely on the support of the Russian-speaking parties in Parliament and further infuriate the few remaining, overwhelmingly ethnic Latvian, supporters of these three parties.
The situation has not been made any easier by the president's choice of nominee for prime minister. With such a fractured Parliament, and after more than a year of the polarizing Einars Repse, it seemed inevitable that a compromise figure would be put forward. However, Indulis Emsis (of the Greens/Farmers Union) is a startling ineffective candidate for prime minister.
Emsis just does not look like a prime minister. From his collection of bland paisley ties and ill-fitting suits (very Soviet Politburo), to his mumbling unfocused oratory and hangdog expression, he just does not seem to have the inner strength and determination needed to hold together a coalition government in a fractured and polarized Parliament and with a powerful New Era in opposition. Indeed, his willingness to pose virtually naked for a gossip magazine a few years ago does not hint at any hidden depths. He is the ultimate compromise figure, with no strong principles or key policies of his own. While it is not impossible, it would certainly be a surprise to see his Cabinet approved in the scheduled parliamentary vote next week. Instead, we are likely to see President Vaira Vike-Freiberga having to consider a new nominee for prime minister.
But whom? By absolutely discounting the possibility of asking Repse to form another government coalition (another personal feud), the president has discarded one of the strongest candidates for the position. Moreover, New Era insists that it will only support Repse's candidacy for prime minister. Some have argued that New Era is actually hoping that all this will eventually lead to the dissolution of Parliament and early elections, in which New Era is likely to fare well, while Latvia's First Party and Greens/Farmers Union are likely to see their support crumble. But this, in turn, is likely to force the other parties to seek a compromise at any cost. So the stakes are already high - and growing with each day.
Moreover, all these political shenanigans are taking place as EU accession edges ever closer. Latvia is already lagging behind the other candidate countries in putting together a management system for the inflow of structural funding. Many businesses are in a state of limbo as they await details of funding opportunities, procedures and money flows. Moreover, the EU itself is in a mild state of crisis after the failure to adopt a constitutional-treaty in December last year. If Latvia is to enter the EU as a constructive, confident new member state on May 1, the Latvian political elite need to stop bickering, put personal differences aside and start working for the benefit of the whole country. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. o

Daunis Auers is a EuroFaculty political science lecturer at the University of Latvia.