An election postmortem

The 8th Saeima elections of Oct. 5 produced a largely predictable result, justifying the claims of political pollsters in Latvia. Despite the predictability, the new Saeima lineup now portends significant changes to the balance of power in Latvia and the nature of future governments.

The highlights:

  • New Era (Jaunais laiks) – the newly formed party of the former Bank of Latvia governor, Einars Repše,  will be the largest party with 26 seats in the 100-seat Saeima.
  • As in previous elections, several sitting parties were not able to get past the threshold of 5 percent of the vote and so will not be represented in the new parliament, most significantly Latvia’s Way and the Social Democrats.
  • For Human Rights in a United Latvia (Par cilvēka tiesībām vienotā Latvijā, or PCTVL) increased its representation strongly and now holds 24 seats.
  • The other largest party in the previous Saeima, the People’s Party (Tautas partija) was returned with only a slight drop in numbers.
  • Meanwhile, the nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom /Latvian National Independence Movement (TB/LNNK) suffered a loss in support, dropping to seven from 17 seats.
  • One of Latvia’s oldest political parties, the Farmers’ Union, has returned, this time in coalition with the Greens.

The biggest winner of the election was Repše’s New Era party with 26 seats, well short of a majority but an outstanding result for a newly formed party. Campaigning on the basis of honest government, combating corruption, entering European institutions and ensuring the integrity of Latvian independence, this party will now have to govern in a coalition to realise its aims.

Almost equally impressive were the gains made by the PCTVL coalition, ensuring a Moscow-oriented opposition remains strong in the Saeima. The gains of PCTVL came in part from the demise of the Social Democrats.

Another big winner that must be noted is the People’s Party, which largely held its own in these elections, losing only three seats from its 1999 result, and avoiding the fate of other previously governing parties of declining dramatically at subsequent elections.

The coalition of the Greens and Farmers Union—a highly unusual and perhaps unique coalition 00 performed strongly to win 12 seats. The Farmers Union is one of Latvian’s oldest traditional parties, now recovered from its years in the wilderness, but how it performs in tandem with the Greens remains to be seen.

Finally, one other new party gained representation, the First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā partija). Latvian elections always throw up at least one curiosity and this is it. Dubbed the “religious party” and having on its list some prominent clergy, it also has a number of other decidedly less spiritual politicians, including some familiar managerial and bureaucratic faces from previous parties no longer represented in the Saeima. They may be hardest to predict of all.

The story of the big losers is equally interesting. Latvia’s Way, the party that has formed part of every government in post-independence Latvia, and which has provided most of the prime ministers and ministers, fell agonisingly short of the benchmark with just 4.88 percent of the vote. Long criticised for the bureaucratic, apparatchik and professional politician manner in which it performed, it nevertheless also had some of Latvia’s best-known and respected politicians. Its failure also means the absence of one of the strongest voices for integration with European institutions such as the European Union and NATO. It remains to be seen if New Era and the People’s Party can push these policies, to which they say they committed to as well.

Other big losers were the Social Democrats. Not for the first time in their colourful history they split before the elections, this time into three separate lists, splintering the vote so that the largest—the traditional Latvian Social Democratic Labour Party (LSDSP)—gained just over 4 percent. Splits in the Social Democrats centred on ideological issues and on what relationship should hold with the Moscow-oriented PCTVL. On the Rīga City Council, the LSDSP and PCTVL are in a controversial coalition, but those not trusting this coalition of convenience split from the party.

Also among the significant losers must be counted TB/LNNK, which lost 10 seats and now precariously holds only seven. TB/LNNK was overtaken by the success of New Era, which is less overtly nationalistic in its program but which clearly attracted a large number of former TB/LNNK voters. For example, while a majority of voters outside Latvia previously strongly supported TB/LNNK, this time a majority of them voted for New Era. TB/LNNK had also had its own internal problems, not least being unable to prevail with its harder line nationalist policy on issues such as language policy and citizenship rights. Some if its coalitions in local governments also have not performed well.

By contrast, both PCTVL and the People’s Party had concentrated a great deal on performing at the local government level. This is now a significant feature in Latvian politics, and will reward careful monitoring. The PCTVL, while widely regarded as a former communist and Moscow-leaning party, has often performed credibly at the local government level and knows the value of competent politicians being visible locally. Equally, the People’s Party contested and won a number of local councils, with an emphasis on developing local economic enterprises.

Finally, one of the significant losers was the small but widely publicised Freedom Party (Brīvības partija), modelling itself on Joerg Haiders’s rightwing party in Austria with an overtly racist campaign, including claiming that entry to Europe will mean flooding the country with black immigrants. They gained only 0.2 percent of the vote.

So, what do we have?

  • A highly popular but relatively politically inexperienced new party, New Era, most likely forming the basis for a centre-right coalition government.
  • A very experienced and confident opposition in PCTVL, therefore maintaining a nationality-based politics as the continuing mode of Latvian politics, rather than a more standard left-right political spectrum.
  • Another more experienced centre party—the People’s Party—capable of being effective critics if New Era should stumble.
  • The disappearance of the highly experienced Latvia’s Way, and another split in the Social Democrats.
  • And the Farmers Union is back, this time with the Greens.

And last, for those of you who have followed the labyrinth of the Latvian election system and the election results, there is still one even more complex aspect of Latvian politics: how governments are formed. But more about that later.

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