Commentary

Unity has potential, but faces rocky road

March 14, 2010

The formation of the new alliance Unity (Vienotība) on March 6 from three major centre-right parties to campaign in the coming Oct. 3 parliamentary election has been long awaited.

The three parties are:

  • New Era (Jaunais laiks), the party of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, formed originally by former Bank of Latvia director Einars Repše.
  • Civil Union (Pilsoniskā savienība), formed by breakaway members from New Era and from the nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom Party (Tēvzemei un brīvībai / LNNK).
  • Society for a Different Politics (Sabiedrība citai politikai), formed by breakaway members from the Peoples Party (Tautas partija).

Unity of these groups has been talked about since early 2009, and a formal announcement of desire to unify came last August, but they went about the unification slowly, each still retaining a separate identity.

The desire to unite centre-right forces has strong economic and political motives. Economically, the Dombrovskis government has been faced with enormously unpopular decisions to reduce government spending and bring about structural reform to show Latvia’s credibility to overseas investors, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The latter two bailed out Latvia with long-term loans, whose repayments will cause even more budgetary pain in the future. With the present uncertain coalition government, and interested parties continually blocking reform of the tax system and other necessary economic moves, the outlook remains bleak unless a strong majority in the next Saeima can support necessary change.

The political reasons are even more compelling. The Latvian political scene has long been characterised by a senseless rivalry between many centre and centre-right parties with seemingly indistinguishable policies, but fierce personal antagonisms that make coalitions unstable and unification impossible. Many Latvian parties, it must be said, are not parties in a traditional Western sense of uniting people with common interests or social positions. Rather, they have been organisations formed by individual leaders to further their political ambitions with little regard for their members or ostensible party platforms.

What the polls show

The immediate necessity for the three parties to form Unity, however, comes mainly from the very good showing of the pro-Moscow party Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs), particularly in the Rīga municipal elections in which the party gained the largest vote and now rules in coalition with the First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā partija). Harmony Centre’s success has made its leadership very confident of a successful showing in the Saeima elections. Given the fracturing of the centre and right, Harmony Centre has now for several years been the leading party in the monthly ratings (scoring 18.5 percent in February) and it is angling for a place in any coalition government after the October elections.

Meanwhile, other parties currently well represented in the Saeima are in crisis, as recent polling shows. The People’s Party, the largest party in the Saeima and the party of former Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis, is stuck at around 3 percent approval among potential voters. (Parties need 5 percent of the vote to gain a place in the Saeima.) The First Party of Latvia, which was also in previous coalition governments, is hovering around the 2 percent mark despite its relative success in Rīga. And For Fatherland and Freedom, a nationalist party that is widely seen to have compromised itself by having been in all coalition governments as Latvia descended into recession, also is stuck on 3 percent. Of the other present coalition parties, only the Union of Greens and Farmers looks safe with 9 percent.

Of the three parties in Unity, New Era is placed second after Harmony Centre with 10 percent of the vote. Civil Union has just more than 5 percent but had a very strong showing in last year’s Europarliament elections. Society for a Different Politics gained just less than 3 percent. Arithmetically, this brings these three parties more or less level with SC, but of course Unity believes that their joining together will stimulate far greater support from many disaffected voters who have long complained there is no one to vote for. More than 20 percent of voters are still undecided, while 16 percent said in February that they will not participate in the elections. The next monthly polls will be watched with great interest.

Still problems ahead

It will not be plain sailing for Unity. Three questions above all will test the alliance, First, there are questions about other parties possibly joining the alliance. For Fatherland and Freedom seems to have run its race as an independent nationalist party and would be a candidate for joining, but there are disagreements among Unity members about taking on the whole party. Some members are concerned with its compromising economic and political decisions in previous coalitions, others with ultra-nationalist elements that constitute part of the party. Other potential candidates include various smaller regional parties as well as the country’s oldest party, the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, which favoured by some in Unity but opposed by others because of corruption incidents.

A second questions is that the alliance now features several extremely strong leaders in each party, and it has been primarily personal conflicts among potential leaders that have done much to undo party unity in the past. This will be an extremely important issue to negotiate, so that the focus can be on policies and a common front rather than individual personalities. This is an enormous test for any alliance in Latvian politics. (A cattier version of the same question is that there are too many strong females, who will fall out among themselves: Solvita Āboltiņa (New Era), Sandra Kalniete (Civil Union) and others must show their common cause is greater that individual ambition, not least to help rid Latvia of sexist prejudices.)

Finally, the economic crisis and the unpopular dcisions taken will be seen as the responsibility of the present government, headed by Dombrovskis’ New Era, with Civil Union in the coalition, and this presents dangers on two fronts. First, the coalition is unsteady, with coalition partner People’s Party in particular trying repeatedly to destabilise the government for its own political purposes. Second, even if the government does survive to October, the question remains how well Unity can convince the electorate that there must be continued economic discipline and even more pain to pull Latvia out if its economic quagmire, given that other parties will mount massive and relentless campaians to discredit this direction.

The coming of Unity has great potential to revitalise Latvian politics, but it will be a rocky road.

Uldis Ozoliņš is immersed in politics both as a hobby and a profession. He lectures and researches in politics in Australia and on frequent trips to Latvia, and considers that the more closely you study politics, the less likely you are to become a politician.

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Uldis Ozoliņš

Uldis Ozoliņš is immersed in politics both as a hobby and a profession. He lectures and researches in politics in Australia and on frequent trips to Latvia, and considers that the more closely you study politics, the less likely you are to become a politician. Besides having worked for several universities in Australia, most recenlty as a lecturer at La Trobe University in Victoria state, Ozoliņš also is involved with the Australasian section of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies.

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