A new ombudsman in the service of political manipulators?

The appointment March 3 of new Ombudsman Juris Jansons showed the extreme political difficulties faced by the government of Prime Minister Dombrovskis, and gives ominous signs of continuing political corruption in Latvia.

In this unsavoury incident, Dombrovskis’ coalition partner—the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, or ZZS)—refused to come to an agreement on which candidate to put forward, and supported Jansons, who had been nominated as a candidate by the Russian-oriented Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs). 

In an exchange of accusations, Dombrovskis warned that by supporting this candidate ZZS was threatening to destabilise the coalition, and was going against the spirit and letter of the formal written coalition agreement. ZZS’s leader, the highly manipulative former apparatchik Augusts Brigmanis, countered by saying this did not go against the agreement at all and demanded an apology from Dombrovskis for suggesting destabilisation. Moreover, he argued that ZZS had supported Jansons when the prime minister’s party, Unity (Vienotība), had dawdled in presenting its own candidate.

This issue had been going on for several months, with a previous candidate of Unity being blackballed by ZZS in earlier discussions. In the end Unity did select another candidate, Anita Kovaļevska, a judge in the Administrative Court with a strong academic and judicial background in human rights, who was strongly supported by several non-government organisations and convincingly won a phone-in vote in a televised debate with her opponent.

Jansons, also a lawyer, has worked in mostly judicial-administrative and financial areas, and after his election said he was desiring to consult with Kovaļevska with her expertise on human rights. More tellingly, he also said that he would work to make the future selection process for the ombudsman more “democratic and publicly understandable”!

Secret ballots, transparent manipulations

This appointment and its machinations raises a number of issues. First, to vote on the candidates the Saeima again engaged in that most unusual of parliamentary practices: a secret ballot. Never used in most parliamenatry systems, the secret ballot showed its ability to hide corrupt practices in April last year with the appointment of a new chief prosecutor, when incumbent Juris Maizītis was not re-elected though all parties had publicly supported him and not a single speech was made in the Saeima against his candidature.

Jansons was elected 53-40, but at least this time all parties had openly declared their support for the various candidates (so the result was not the shock it was in Maizitis’ case). Moreover, there was debate in the Saeima on the relative merits of the candidates. For those supporting Kovaļevska, the emphasis was on her judicial and academic background and expertise in human rights. Those supporting Jansons argued that administrative expertise, not human rights expertise, was more important in this position.

One other argument emerged for Jansons. The odious oligarch Ainars Šlesers reached the nadir of debate when he argued that he would favour Jansons as he openly supported “family values,” the usual code for politicians employing conservative moral and religious values to mask their actual view of politics as lucrative business and promoting one’s own. Suitability for the job was never a highly ranked criterion for those like Šlesers in the hypocritically named For a Good Latvia! (Par labu Latviju!), which sided with ZZS and Harmony Centre to push their candidate through.

Second, these proceedings give us an insight into the political lie of the land in the parliament, and particularly the central place that ZZS now occupies. The great strength of ZZS is not just its own 22 seats in the 100-member Saeima, but in its strategic position to be able to go with either Unity (33 seats) or Harmony Centre (29 seats) to form a majority. Formally in coalition with Unity, the Jansons episode, like the Maizītis episode where ZZS was clearly the force that stopped his appointment, shows it cares little for coalition niceties when it seeks to assert its influence. A strong ombudsman is not in ZZS interests. In recent months there have been a series of appointments to various government boards and institutions with ZZS people well represented, but the appointments have come often with little transparency.

In other ways, however, ZZS at the moment seems to have no thought of abandoning the coalition. It is aware that its own party and membership would be solidly against going into coalition with SC, and currently ZZS has the best of all possible worlds—being in a coaliton, so contributing to overall policy and governance through its ministers and appointments, but also able to play the field, picking and chosing issues on which to diverge from its coalition partner, and always reminding Dombrovskis of his limited capacity to determine policy. The presidential elections due mid-year may be the next time for ZZS to move in this fashion.

An ombudsman in difficult times

Finally, spare a thought for the ombudsman, or tiesībsargs. This position has only been established for three years, and the process of finding a candidate led to a prolonged standoff. Finally Judge Romāns Apsītis, a reluctant candidate from Day 1, was elected as a compromise candidate. He did not vie for re-election, and rated his own work in the office as middling. As is custom, the ombudsman only has powers to recommend, and the frustration Apsītis felt in battling the bureaucracy was evident. Each of the years of his office has seen a decline in the numbers of people seeking its help, a problem that Jansons promised to address.

However, this is not to give up hope for Jansons. In recent years several appointments that were seen as politically favouring lesser qualified candidates have turned to bite those who appointed them and believed they could be kept on a leash.

Aleksejs Loskutovs, former director of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs) is one such example. He became a popular hero when the government attempted to sack him in 2007.

President Valdis Zatlers, elected by the Saeima in 2007, was widely seen as a lap dog for the then government but has also shown far greater independence than what his appointers had hoped. We shall watch with interest how candidates are found for the presidency.

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