Latvian elections: what should we be voting for?

The election is rapidly approaching and as Latvians in the diaspora, we should appreciate that for many Latvians living in Latvia the 27 years since independence have brought unwelcome as well as welcome changes and consequently in some quarters there is voter dissatisfaction with the whole political process. We should remember that voting in Latvia is not compulsory and that some will abstain or vote as a knee-jerk reaction because of disappointment with previous governments.

So, it is particularly important that we inform ourselves and use our votes wisely.

But how to make the choice?

We should consider what the Latvian government should do over the next four years, in the economy, education, defence … and which of the political candidates might be able to achieve this result? Look at the leader of your preferred list of candidates and ask yourself whether you would buy a used car from this person … if he/she does not seem honourable, don’t entrust them with running the country!

Personalities aside, there is another very important point to consider when making your choice. Latvia is recognised as a modern, democratic European country, which is expected to keep up with the advanced countries of the world. Latvia punches way above its weight in the fields of business and arts innovation. Unfortunately, we don’t have many politicians at this level. We have a string of popular and respected politicians, but many of these are still 20th century people with 20th century ideas, they are afraid of our contemporary open world and don’t know how to communicate with it effectively. For some, habits of mind and behaviour instilled during the Soviet occupation continue to shape political interactions.

Latvia stands on the threshold of a dynamic four years – not only internally, but in terms of the next EU budget, the future of NATO, the relationship between the West and Russia, and similar critical policy areas. For this reason, it is important that the next Latvian government is made up of forward-thinking, educated young people who have the knowledge and will to work in 21st century conditions. To give the green light to the younger generation, we can use the Latvian voting system’s uniquely offered opportunity to mark a candidate with a “plus” sign or strike him or her from the list. Contemporary, forward thinking candidates can be found in almost all the lists and it is they who should be supported for the overall benefit of our country. We may be very fond of an experienced old horse, but we need a car to even think of entering the Grand Prix.

How to choose your candidates

To navigate the Latvian political landscape, I will use the subjective approach I have developed to guide my own decisions. The Latvian political landscape can’t be easily divided into “good” and “bad”. It can be described in two dimensions as “experienced” vs. “new” and “predictable” vs. “unpredictable”, so we can each make our own decision based on our priorities.

We can understand those voters who choose to stay with the status quo. After all, the “Vienotība”, NA and ZZS coalition has, in the main, been in power since 2009 and has given Latvians some stability. Some negative aspects of this fragile stability are: Aivars Lembergs in the coalition, the OIK scandal over the corrupt funneling of “green energy” money, the lack of transparency in appointing solvency administrators. In short, the coalition has many faults. However, this government has put Latvia on a sound course that leads in the right direction – towards economic strength, integration into the EU and NATO, sustainable fiscal policies and more. This has been achieved at great cost, so it would be foolhardy indeed to allow its destruction by some barely hatched “saviours of the people”. Latvia has a lot to lose, we must be mindful of our choices.

We can also understand those voters who have decided not to support the existing government. The current coalition seems to have lost drive, energy and capacity to govern. The most obvious example is the implosion of the once-great party “Vienotība”, brought about by internal conflicts, which has frightened off many of its supporters. The other two experienced parties – Nacionālā Apvienība and ZZS – have also suffered from corruption and other scandals. Therefore, perhaps it is indeed worthwhile to seek some new alternative – even if only to change the personalities in the ruling elite. It would not be reasonable to expect young people wanting to make a career in Latvian politics to join these stagnant old parties. There is certainly a case to be made for voting for young people.

The “experienced” and “new” divide does not fall in the same place as the “predictable” and “unpredictable” divide.

The “predictable” parties are those which, despite pre-election rhetoric, can be relied upon, if they come to power, to make considered judgements on matters of policy. They share the same underlying values that have underpinned the current development of Latvia as having a free, internationally viable market economy:

  • strong support of the NATO alliance in defence
  • the importance of maintaining the Latvian language and culture in the public arena alongside respectful relations with the minority groups in Latvia
  • welfare reforms in line with contemporary thinking
  • macroeconomic stability
  • true democracy.

All the “predictable” parties may bend their rhetoric to interpret these values, but would agree that they are fundamental to Latvia’s future.

On the other hand, the “unpredictable” parties have demonstrated by previous behaviour that they are quite capable of stepping aside from such principles for short-term gains. With “unpredictable” parties in power, anything could happen. Some would argue that risks need to be taken for the possibility of great future gains – but who would ultimately benefit? It seems unlikely that it would be the voters. If, for example, “Saskaņa” or KPV.LV were part of the ruling coalition, what would they do? These parties themselves have not given any clear indication. Are voters ready to take such a leap into the unknown?

Using this two-dimensional model, the parties line up as shown in the attached diagram. Please notice that just because a party is experienced, it is not necessarily predictable (e.g. ZZS) and that some of the new parties are predictable, particularly with respect to their basic values. The subjective aspects of the diagram will, no doubt, be modified by each of you, according to your personal political inclinations.

Campaigns and current events

In the Latvian political system, a vote for a particular party is also a vote for the coalition that party is likely to form – no party has ever governed by itself. Therefore, the individual party programs should be taken with a grain of salt, they are more a list of aspirations than of policies. If your party gains a place in the ruling coalition, the government policies will be those agreed upon by this coalition. Coalition partners are carefully chosen. The hot topic in the press is what role the social-democratic party “Saskaņa” might take in a ruling coalition. Despite the media hype, there remains only a very small possibility that this might happen. However, we should be aware that the Artuss Kaimiņš scandal-riddled KPV.LV party has consistently avoided stating its position on co-operation with “Saskaņa”. This has caused a great deal of speculation. An example of this is the connection between KPV.LV and prominent politician and millionaire Ainārs Šlesers, who is a part owner of the newspaper “Dienas Bizness” which regularly supports KPV.LV and denigrates its opponents. However, although it is predicted that KPV.LV will fare well at the ballot box, it remains highly unlikely that it, together with “Saskaņa”, would constitute a majority.

Political polls over the past month have varied widely in quality and methodology, which has been reflected in the vast array of pre-poll predictions. It seems certain that the next Saeima will include “Saskaņa” and ZZS, most probably as the two largest factions. It is highly likely that Nacionālā Apvienība VL!-TB/LNNK, Jaunā Konservatīvā partija and KPV.LV will also be represented. (KPV.LV has been touted as possibly receiving 5% – 15% of the vote.) The remaining parties are balancing on the 5% cut-off line: this includes the slightly refreshed “Jaunā Vienotība”, the liberal start-up “Attīstībai/PAR” and “Latvijas Reģiona Apvienība”. It is difficult to predict the results for these parties. A dark horse in the field is Tatjanas Ždanokas pro-Kremlin “Latvijas Krievu savienība” (LKS), which has popular journalist Andrejs Mamikins amongst its candidates. This party has not done well in the ratings, but its voter base tends not to disclose voting preferences, so it is not out of the question that “Saskaņa” may have a left-based rival.

Taking into account the broad spectrum of political parties and ideologies on offer, it is conceivable that the next Saeima may be very fragmented. The current Saeima has representatives from 6 parties, the next one could potentially see representation of up to 9 parties. This could be a major stumbling block in the formation of the new governing coalition. Personalities, previous political history and pre-poll rhetoric will all have to be juggled by whoever is charged with forming the next governing coalition. Let us remember that the most unlikely coalitions can be forged into governments, as in the Saeima elections in 1995, when Andris Šķēle successfully managed a coalition consisting of 9 parties. Such a scenario is not ideal, but it can be workable for the day-to-day running of the government. The alternative of inviting “Saskaņa” to the table is not being realistically considered by any of the players.

In the end, it will be decided by arithmetic – the result of the will of the people, in which we each play a part.

Ivars Ījabs, specially commissioned by PBLA

October 2018 Latvian Elections: Voting Information – Part 2

The current state of play

The parties have now registered their candidates and policies with Latvia’s Central Electoral Commission. There is less than two months until the elections and neither expense nor political tricks are being spared. The resulting noise is confusing to the onlooker, so this article attempts to strip away the hype and give an objective and critical view of the party candidates and their policies.

A few words of warning

Firstly, about the people fronting party campaigns – they are not necessarily even candidates! In recent years, parties have taken to using their high profile members to head their election campaigns in order to attract maximum votes for their party. Some of these are genuine candidates, who appear on the ballot paper, some are not. So, if you are basing your vote on your support for a particular party member, it is wise to check before the election whether that person is even on the ballot paper. Some of the political show ponies in this election, whose names do not appear on ballot papers are: Roberts Zīle (“Nacionālā Apvienība”, National Union), Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš (“Jaunā Vienotība”, New Vienotība),

Another point to consider is that Latvian governments have traditionally been coalitions, as no one party has ever held enough seats to form a government alone. For this reason, the leader of the government is necessarily a figure of compromise and is unlikely to be the official leader of any of the parties forming the coalition.

Bear in mind also that the Latvian voting system allows for a party ballot paper to become essentially a vote for one individual, if a plus sign is marked against that individual’s name and all the other candidates on the ballot paper are crossed out. Candidates that promote this style of voting are not likely to support their party’s views, but rather their own self interest.

Finally, be aware of ambiguities in the party names, as some parties have deliberately created a name similar to an existing party. For example, “Par Alternatīvu” is not the same as “Attīstībai/Par” and “Latviešu nacionālisti” is not the same as Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!”-”Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”. Voters should be very wary, as even a few votes may be crucial to the success of some parties.

Party candidate lists

First, a few general points, then the specifics of the Riga area candidates, which will be the ones on the ballot papers for overseas Latvians. A reminder that we are only looking at those parties that are likely to poll over 2%. (According to current ratings figures). Each party’s candidate list has a mix of veteran and virgin politicians – some weighted more in favour of political experience, others in favour of fresh faces.

Parties which have opted to essentially retain their veteran politicians in the front line-up are: Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!”-”Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK” (NA) and Zaļo un Zemnieku Savienība (ZZS).

The Socialdemocratic party “Saskaņa” has moved its traditional Russian background leaders to second place on their ballot papers and replaced them with Latvian background candidates as the front runners. (Including a couple of high profile defectors from “Vienotība”)

The once leading party “Vienotība” has become “Jaunā Vienotība” and in at least two areas it is leading its ballot paper with experienced government ministers.

Jaunā Konservatīvā partija” (New Conservative Party) is not really all that new, but in this election seems to have a chance to enter the Saeima. Its drawcard is that at least two of its ballot papers are led by respected anti-corruption campaigners Juta Strīķe and Juris Jurašs. This party also polled well in the Riga local elections.

KPV.LV (short for “Kam pieder valsts” which translates as “Who does the country belong to?”) is aggressively putting itself forward, despite an almost total lack of political experience by any of its members. Its leader, Artuss Kaimiņš, has gathered a mixed bunch of strident candidates around himself.

The liberal, pro-western niche is this time occupied by “Attīstībai/Par”. Although the party styles itself as being young and fresh, its front runners are experienced politicians. This party also has a fair sprinkling of high profile arts identities.

Party candidate lists for Rīga

The ballot papers issued for Riga are tailored to suit the citizens of Riga and the Diaspora. The average Riga citizen has a higher income, is better educated and has a more global outlook than the average regional citizen. At the same time, the citizen of Riga is also more suspicious and inclined to change his or her mind.

An example of this tailoring is that the front candidate in Rīga for “Saskaņa” is Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis, a highly qualified economist with a doctorate from Clark University and ministerial experience. However, the other candidates on their list are not well known to the Latvian public, apart from the widely disliked “family values” proponent Jūlija Stepaņenko and defence expert Raimonds Rublovskis. “Saskaņa” has also included one of the Rubiks sons in its Riga line-up.

In contrast, the ZZS ballot paper for Rīga is full of well-known and respected candidates, beginning with Dana Reizniece-Ozola (Finance Minister and U-18 European chess champion) and ending with the Head of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Ojārs Spārītis.

The NA candidates are also well-known, including Dace Melbārde (Minister for Culture), foreign policy expert Rihards Kols and Professor Dagnija Blumberga.

“Jaunā VIENOTĪBA” is headed by Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs, who is supported by well-known and experienced politicians, such as Ojārs Ēriks Kalniņš, Interior Minister Rihard Kozlovskis and Education Minister Kārlis Šadurskis.

JKP has chosen Juta Strīķe to head their list. She has had a high profile since 2003, with her first candidature for KNAB (the anti-corruption organisation). Their list includes economist Gatis Eglītis and well-known administrator Indulis Tupenis.

The candidate list of “Attīstībai/Par!” begins with Economics Minister Daniels Pavļuts and includes former minister Vita Anda Tērauda, anti-corruption experts Inese Voika and Kristaps Petermanis and other familiar faces.

In contrast, KPV.LV has assembled a surprising array of characters, including singer and TV personality Andris Kivičs, actor Ivars Puga and Fisheries Union president Didzis Šmits.

In short, the party candidates offer a broad spectrum of knowledge, experience and political history. Voters should consider carefully the rival merits of experience/youth, education/popularity, strong patriotism/a global outlook, etc. It is clear that newcomers to politics will have a cleaner reputation than those who have already been there for some time. However, a well-educated politician does not necessarily have the skills to be promote his or her policies and previous business experience may be an indicator of either links with corrupt practices or a deep understanding of Latvia’s economic problems.

The simplest way to gain some clarity on the issue is to look at the past achievements of the candidates and parties.

Programs and promises

Over 4,000 programs have been registered by the competing parties. The programs are not of themselves generally considered as important campaign elements. However, it is a good idea to cast your eye over them, to gain some insight into how the party perceives its voting support base. Some are written in plain language, outlining aims, objectives and strategies, while others are couched in flowery language, big on hype and devoid of strategic substance. It should be remembered that for a party to enact its policies, it is not enough for it to gain seats in the Saeima, it must negotiate successfully with the other members of government. Here again, the best indicator of future achievements is past performance.

Coalition with “Saskaņa”?

The popularisation of Artuss Kaimiņš’ party KPV.LV has led to the concern that there may be a real possibility of a future coalition government with “Saskaņa”. “Saskaņa” has such a different position to the vast majority of the parties on Latvian language, history and geopolitical orientation that this concern is understandable.

KPV.LV has until now been unpredictable in its political decisions and has not made any firm commitments, so there can be no certainty that it would not invite “Saskaņa” as a coalition partner.

This seems a very remote possibility, as the right-wing parties that are likely to win places in the Saeima (according to the current ratings, see below) have all ruled out forming a coalition with “Saskaņa” and some of them would need to be part of such a coalition, to get the voting mandate above 50%.

Another point to remember is that the President has the power to invite a party representative to negotiate a coalition to form a government, the party with the largest number of votes does not automatically gain this privilege. It would seem that the current Latvian President Vējonis has enough political sense not to invite “Saskaņa” to form a government. If KPV.LV were invited to form a government, there would be immense community opposition to “Saskaņa” being involved.

Whoever is invited to form a government, it will be difficult to negotiate a workable coalition. There is a greater likelihood that the right-wing parties will set aside their differences and form a government if the only alternative is inviting “Saskaņa” to the table. If such a coalition should be unattainable, the majority of right-wing parties would opt for an extraordinary election rather than a government that included “Saskaņa”.

The relative strengths of the parties in the next Saeima is critical in all of these scenarios. So, more than ever, not only does every vote count, but it can be crucial to the entry into the Saeima of the minor parties that are hovering around the 5% mark. It is also important that people of differing political views talk to one another: the plethora of small political parties is symptomatic of a fragmented Latvian society, each shard isolated from the others. It is not always easy nor pleasant to speak with people who hold radically different political views. The alternative is to complain after the elections of a duplicitous government with policies at odds with Latvia’s interests.

From information compiled by Ivars Ījabs, an independent political analyst commissioned by PBLA.

October 2018 Latvian Elections: Voting Information

The next Latvian national election will be on October 6th, 2018. Polling stations will be set up in Latvia and also in Latvian centres throughout the world.

Latvia is a democratic country, each citizen has the right to vote in the elections. In contrast to countries with separate parliamentary and presidential elections, Latvia has only one national election, which determines the course of government for the next four years. The Latvian national election decides which candidates and parties will form the next government (Saeima). The elected Saeima chooses the President.

The Latvian voting system is unique and the list of candidates and parties long. It is very important to vote, as the overseas Latvian votes form a substantial part of the electorate. In Latvia, where voting is not compulsory, each vote makes can make a big difference!

There are 100 seats in the Saeima and 5 electoral regions, each region has a number of seats proportional to the population of that region. The regions are Latgale, Kurzeme, Vidzeme, Zemgale and Riga. Changes in population distribution result in a redistribution of the seats for each electoral region. For the upcoming election, the numbers are: Latgale (14), Kurzeme (12), Vidzeme (25), Zemgale (14), Riga (35). Since the previous elections, the first three regions have each lost one seat while Riga has gained 3. This change can be explained by the fact that the votes of Latvians living overseas are included in the Riga electorate and there has been a wave of economic emigration over the past four years. It has been calculated that overseas Latvians have the potential to decide 8 of the 100 seats. This can make a critical contribution to the formation and tone of the next government of Latvia.

The voting system is based on party preferences. There is a separate ballot paper for each party. Each voter is given a voting envelope and multiple ballot papers, one for each of the participating parties. The voter chooses one of the ballot papers, which is then put in the envelope and into the ballot box. The remaining ballot papers are discarded. Before placing the chosen ballot paper into the envelope & ballot box, the voter can mark it to indicate preferences amongst the listed candidates, this will influence whether a specific candidate on the party preference sheet actually winds up with a seat in the Saeima. A plus sign next to the candidate’s name indicates a positive shift for that candidate, a line through the candidate’s name moves that candidate down the list. The ones at the top of the list get into the Saeima.

Political Parties

There are many small political parties in Latvia. To be included in the election, a party must have at least 500 members and have been formed 1 year before the date of the election. To get into the Saeima, a political party has to poll at least 5% of the vote. To increase the chances of a small party’s candidates gaining seats in the Saeima, they often combine with another small party (or parties). When this happens, and a combined party is formed, it is useful to know the policies and actions of its constituent parties, before making a decision. The line-up of candidates for the election will be finalised in late July.

Here follows a brief outline of the major parties.

It is most likely that the major players in the next Latvian election will be three parties which already have a track record. These are: the social democrat “Saskaņa”, “Zaļo un Zemnieku Savienība” [ZZS] (Greens and Farmers Union) and “Nacionālā Apvienība” (National Union).

“Saskaņa” has held the largest number of seats in the Saeima since 2010, but has not been part of the government. The main support base of “Saskaņa” is the Russian-speaking population of Latvia, but it also gains votes from ethnic Latvians. “Saskaņa” is ideologically different to all the other parties in that it is against Latvian being the official language of Latvia, it has a pro-Soviet stance on the Soviet occupation of Latvia and has pro-Russian geo-political leanings. Due to these basic ideological differences, it is highly unlikely that “Saskaņa” would be able to form an alliance with any of the other parties, so it is most likely they will again be in the opposition in the 13th Saeima.

Zaļo un Zemnieku Savienība (ZZS) is currently the leading party in the Latvian government. It has its roots in regional areas outside Riga and many of its candidates are local government politicians. This party does not have a specific ideological base, but relies on the post-Soviet longing for a “good, honest manager” and also has the capacity to attract popular candidates. As the leading political party in the current government, it has been responsible for initiating the recent taxation and health care reforms. Although some of its members flirt with anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric, it is unlikely that it would form a coalition with “Saskaņa”.

The support base for Nacionālā Apvienība is those for whom the Latvian-Russian relationship is of utmost importance. NA boasts a string of popular politicians and its supporters seem unconcerned at the increasing number of allegations of corruption levelled at their representatives.

“Vienotība” gained second place in the previous election, but has now dropped to 3-4% in the ratings, so could possibly be completely out of the next government. This ratings drop can be explained by the party’s inability to overcome its internal differences. It has lost a swathe of politicians, but has retained a number of experienced and popular candidates who bring with them a solid support base. The policies of “Vienotība” are European, centric and technocratic. There is no guarantee that they will have enough support to gain seats in the next Saeima.

“Jaunā Konservatīvā partija” has much in common with “Vienotība”. Its current focus is anti-corruption, which it is pursuing effectively. JKP is not a new party, but has been re-vitalised by fresh and energetic candidates, including human rights workers. Despite their energy and excellent communications skills, they lack political experience.

“Attīstībai/Par” is a new party, hoping to attract “Vienotības” liberal electorate. It is led by competent politicians, with experience in government. It is supported predominantly by young, educated, European-oriented voters. The weaknesses of this party is that some of its politicians are tainted by previous public dealings and that Western left-leaning policies are not widely popular in Latvia.

KPV.LV is basically a one-man party, led by Artuss Kaimiņš. He has based his political career on pointing out the failings of the existing elite and system, but is yet to provide alternative policies to deal with these failings.

Latvijas Reģionu apvienība (Latvian Regional Union) is an independent ZZS look-alike, which has also attracted some interesting candidates.

Latvijas Krievu savienība (Latvian Russian Union) is an openly pro-Moscow party, which attracts the radical pro-Russian sector of the electorate. This party sees “Saskaņa” as being too Western and conformist.

From information compiled by Ivars Ījabs, an independent political analyst commissioned by PBLA.