The upcoming Saeima election on Oct. 2 could be the most decisive in Latvia‘s history. For the first time there is a serious possibility that decidedly pro-Moscow parties could win a parliamentary election and be in the government. Other countries—Russia, in Europe, the United States—will be watching the results with far greater interest than in any previous election.
Yet it would be hard to come to such a conclusion if all we had to go on was the spluttering, relatively uneventful and characterless election campaign.
Some parties have made attempts to publicise themselves, most notably head-kicker Ainārs Šlesers, of the For a Good Latvia party (Par labu Latviju!, or PLL). Šlesers, a millionaire, is a former transportation minister. His portraits are on giant billboards all over the country.
For the most part it has been a woefully uninformative and featureless campaign. Unity (Vienotība), whose Valdis Dombrovskis is prime minister, has had trouble making a real impact. The party’s one campaign move was a rather populist call for people to respond to an online survey about who they think would be the better choice for prime minister in the next government: Dombrovskis or Jānis Urbanovičs, the leader of the pro-Moscow Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs). The survey possibly did as much to publicise Harmony Centre as it did Unity.
The Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība) has played dead, assured of a place in the new Saeima, but cynically biding its time to see who it will join in a coalition. As a mark of the party’s democratic credentials, its leader Augusts Brigmanis recently questioned why it was worthwhile having parties publish an official short policy outline that is accessible to all voters in polling stations, as all these policies look so similar and give voters little reason to choose between parties. For Brigmanis, only what goes on in the corridors of government once portfolios have been decided is of any worth.
The nationalist alliance of For Fatherland and Freedom (Tēvzemei un brīvībai / LNNK, or TB/LNNK) and All for Latvia! (Visu Latvijai!) has been active, staging countless demonstrations and meetings and running a very lively and aggressive Internet campaign. Given little chance of early success, as TB/LNNK has been heavily compromised by being part of the former coalition government that took Latvia into financial meltdown, this alliance is now regarded as having a good chance of being in the Saeima, thanks to its activist partner, All for Latvia!.
Significantly, ratings leader Harmony Centre is playing it quiet, trying not to scare the horses and playing down any radical ambitions, riding on its success in the Rīga local government elections of last year. But leader Urbanovičs has in numerous interviews hinted heavily at his party’s ultimate aims—citizenship for all non-citizens and raising the status of the Russian language.
This is what is at stake.
Return of the guilty
Apart from the ambitions of Harmony Centre, the campaign has also seen the strenuous attempts by those responsible for Latvia’s financial mess to return to power, ignoring their own role in the debacle and laying all the blame for Latvia’s woes on the present government’s kowtowing to the International Monetary Fund, which has bailed Latvia out of impending bankruptcy.
The PLL consists of the two leading parties in the former coalition government of ill-remembered Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis. For those such as Šlesers, the campaign has only one purpose: not to debate policy on the economy, or national security, or any other issues that may be important, but simply by whatever publicity means and whatever criticism of current policy to get enough people to vote for them to get back to a say in government. PLL’s decided leaning toward a Russia-oriented economy and foreign policy, and its coalition with Harmony Centre on the Rīga City Council, present a standing danger to Latvia’s interest in being a western-oriented country as a member of the European Union and the NATO defense alliance.
In current ratings, Harmony Centre is just a few points ahead of Unity, with ZZS trailing but assured of a place in the Saeima, followed by PLL with a similar likelihood of being elected. In Latvia’s proportional representation system, where a party much achieve 5 percent of the vote to gain any seats in the Saeima, the nationalist TB/LNNK-Visu Latvijai! alliance now seems sure of crossing that threshold and some surveys indicate it may do quite well. The welcome news around the 5 percent issue is that the long-standing Soviet remnant party For Human Rights in a United Latvia (Par cilvēku tiesībām vienotā Latvijā, or PCTVL), may struggle to reach 5 percent, though this party has been written off before.
Getting out the vote
A major factor in the election will be voter turnout. And here some important factors come into play.
Surveys have shown that the greatest number of those undecided on which party to vote for, or whether to vote at all, are ethnic Latvians. Russian voters are far less likely to be undecided and their support for Harmony Centre (and partially for PCTVL) is apparent.
In a historically familiar pattern, Latvian parties are highly fragmented even if they seem to espouse similar policies (they are of course largely not really parties, but simply vehicles for their leaders’ ambitions). If a substantial part of this undecided group does nevertheless vote, and votes for the Latvian parties, it may be possible to keep PCTVL below the 5 percent barrier and ensure more support for Unity and the other Latvian parties.
For the first time, the vote of those outside Latvia also may be important. While traditionally those citizens outside Latvia have had low participation rates (particularly the older post-war diaspora), there are numerous Latvians who have more recently come to other countries to work and who may have critical views on Latvia’s economic crisis and the reasons for it. If they vote—rather than shrugging off elections in a country that in many cases they feel they have been forced to leave—their vote may well have an impact.
In this election the overriding issue must be to maintain Latvia’s western orientation and support for Latvian cultural values, particularly language. While Unity may have been lacklustre in the campaign, its ability to take on government during the most difficult phase for Latvia is now bearing fruit as Latvia’s economy is edging significantly closer to recovery. Unity’s concern with corruption and with effective bureaucracy is also a plus. Everything depends on whether this message can get across the barrage of criticism and hypocritical posturing of those who are most responsible for leading Latvia into its financial crisis.
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