Latvia’s 12th Saeima (Parliamentary) elections this October 4 will take place in the shadow of continuing conflict in Ukraine and an atmosphere of great uncertainty.
The last few elections have resulted in various coalitions of centre-right and conservative parties, but dominated by the leadership of Valdis Dombrovskis from the Vienotība (Unity) party, until his resignation in the wake of the supermarket Maxima roof collapse tragedy last year. The past elections and subsequent coalition bargaining have also resulted in the pro-Moscow Saskaņas centrs (Harmony Centre) – the largest party after the last election with 31 deputies out of 100 – perpetually not being part of the coalition.
This year Unity had a huge victory in the May European Parliamentary [EP] elections, capturing 4 of the 8 deputies for Latvia, with the other 4 deputies coming from 4 different parties.
It was considered that the tensions in Ukraine already had an effect on this EP election. Harmony Centre had earlier appeared to be gaining in strength and confidence and prominence; its charismatic leader Riga Mayor Nils Ušakovs had followed a clear Moscow line, deriding the Maidan demonstrations in Kiev, gloating over Putin’s takeover of Crimea, but becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the messy and bloody Ukraine conflict continued, and Harmony Centre supporters did not turn out in the numbers expected at the EP elections. The shooting down of MH17 seemed to completely disorient Ušakovs. However, taking over the extreme pro-Moscow running has been old Soviet veteran Tatjana Ždanoka and her rebranded party Latvijas krievu savienība (Union of Latvia’s Russians), who gained one place in the EP elections (the same number as Harmony Centre) and seems to be regaining its former strength as Harmony Centre falters. Ždanoka with much fanfare visited Crimea soon after its annexation, and lauded Putin.
The choice between the western-oriented Latvian centre and right-wing parties on the one hand, and the Moscow-oriented Harmony Centre and Ždanoka on the other seems a clear choice, but it is unlikely that Unity will repeat its EP success in October. Latvian politics throws up endless schisms, particularly among seemingly similar-oriented centre parties, and this election sees three new parties emerge with some chance of reaching the 5% barrier needed for representation in the Saeima, and thus challenging Unity.
Two of the three parties are the parties of former prominent politicians: Einars Repše was a former Prime Minister and founder of the party that with various transmogrifications became Unity, but left the Prime Ministership when he could not work with coalition partners. He attracts very divided opinions: some see him as charismatic and an excellent economist, being formerly a very successful head of the Latvian Central Bank; others find his personal unpredictability and inability to cooperate with others a fatal negative. His new party Latvijas attīstībai (Latvia’s Development Party) has drawn some prominent business people but has yet to gain substantial favour.
The other former politician to re-emarge is one-time Transport Minister and best friend of oligarchs and family values, the head-kicking and pro-Russian business Ainārs Šlesers, seen by some as one of the architects of Latvia’s financial crisis in 2008, by others as the one politician who understands how to get the economy moving. With no doubt unlimited resources, despite official constraints on campaign spending, his party Vienoti Latvijai (United for Latvia) will be loudly heard in these elections.
Both Repše and Šlesers are riding on the growing dissatisfaction with the present coalition government, headed by Unity and the decidely uncharismatic Laimdota Straujuma as Prime Minister. A previosuly good, technocratic but low-key minister, the matronly Straujuma has struggled to take on the mantle of Dombrovskis and the coalition has really been drfiting for some time; while economic growth is up, needed reforms have not been carried through. So, while popular as a pro-European party, Unity is vulnerable to attack for its economic and other policy record.
The third new party that is making waves is completely different: Inguna Sudraba was a very prominent Auditor-General, the first to make an impact on Latvian corruption and shady public sector dealings, but she comes with little hard political experience and that is beginning to show: she has put together a party of some business people and other social activists, and given it the saccharine-sweet title of No sirds Latvijai (literally, ‘With All My Heart for Latvia’) and makes highly emotional but policy-wise insubstantial pronouncements on all matters governmental. She also has unusual and problematic relations with a number of prominent Russian business people and even Russian security officials – a pecular mix indeed.
Critics have been quick to characterise these parties as two ‘Zombie’ parties (former politicians risen from the dead) and one, to put it mildly, eccentric party, that of Sudraba, but given the confused situation and lack-lustre domestic performance of the coalition, surprises could be in store. The rise of these parties is also a clear result of the total collapse of what was the second largest party after the last 2011 elections, the Reform Party, headed by former President Valdis Zatlers. Hastily formed after Zatlers as President recommended the dissolution of the previous Saeima, it had a brief truiumph in the subsequent elections but despite providing some good ministers, was wracked with internal dissension and splitting. Its 22 seats are the ones everyone else wants to grab.
Of the other established parties, the more right-wing National Alliance has been loudly promoting its told-you-so credentials in the wake of Putin’s aggression, and will not lose support even though several of its ministers have fallen by the wayside for various reasons, including a couple of ministers who did not get the highest level of security clearances, indicating odd connections or activities in the past on which there could be further interesting developments. And just to show this security issue is spread around other parties as well, the Central Electoral Commission has notified that four candidates have been identified by a state agency concerned with documenting activities in previous totalitarian regimes, as having been agents of the KGB.
The final established party, a member of the Straujuma coalition, is a hybrid built on one of Latvia’s oldest parties, Zaļo un zemnieku savienība (Greens and Farmers Union), that unlikely joining of pro-conservation greens and conservative famers. It has a strong base in regional governments and councils and was successful for the first time this year in gaining an EP deputy, but its credentials are being undermined by the outrageous antics of its long-time sponsor, oligarch, one-time Prime Minister candidate and general ‘godfather’, Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, who has repeatedly attacked the stationing of American NATO troops in Latvia, and is increasingly revealing his pro-Putin leanings.
Ukraine thus casts longs shadows into many areas of Latvian domestic politics, with outcomes on October 4 difficult to predict.