After the passion of the July 23 referendum, in which 94 percent of voters supported former President Valdis Zatlers’ recommendation to dismiss the parliament, the weeks leading up to the election of the new Saeima on Sept. 17 have been generally lacklustre.
Given Latvia’s long-term economic plight, the limited room to move for any elected government and the remarkably similar programs all major parties present, there has been a campaign centring largely on personalities.
Zatlers has continued to be the key figure, and the promise of something new in Latvian politics, after his impressive decision in moving to dismiss the Saeima (for which the parliament rewarded him by electing a new president, Andris Bērziņš). Zatlers’ decision to form a new party rather than take up the leading party Unity’s (Vienotība) invitation to join it was probably correct, in that his party appears to have significant support in the electorate. Zatlers may have been overshadowed and his role downplayed if he had joined Unity, which is increasingly blamed for the perceived glacial rate of improvement in Latvia’s economy.
Yet Zatlers has not had it all his own way. Collecting a credible political party in the space of a few months has been difficult. His candidate for prime minister, Edmunds Sprūdžs, and several of his other key people are not widely known. Some have been shown to have less than spotless pasts (digging this up is a journalistic pastime in Latvia). Most of all, Zatlers has struggled to differentiate his party policy from that of Unity. His opponents point to his lack of political experience, though this cuts less ice as Zatlers has shown himself to be increasingly confident and knowledgeable in his appearances.
Several major questions have dominated political commentary, mostly concerning the party that has largely led polling (as it did before the last Saeima elections)—Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs ). This party, largely supported by Russian and other non-Latvian voters, is itself a combination of three factions, but includes a spectrum from hardline old Soviet folk (Alfreds Rubiks is one of its Eurodeputies) to very moderate and clearly pro-Latvian politicians. However, its alliance with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and its prevaricating stance on many issues of Latvian history and identity has meant that many voters regard it with suspicion.
Two questions dominate regarding Harmony Centre: How well will it do in the elections and who is willing to bring it into a coalition government? After the last Saeima election and Unity’s victory, many observers were surprised the Unity turned around and invited Harmony Centre to discuss coming into coalition. Zatlers’ Reform Party (ZRP) has also indicated it would talk with Harmony Centre. Unity and ZRP have laid down preconditions, such as recognition of the fact of Latvia being occupied by the Soviet Union, and not changing the official state language (Latvian). Harmony Centre’s refusal to discuss the issue of occupation last time may have cost it a place in the governing coalition.
The fact that both Unity and ZRP are willing to countenance a coalition with Harmony Centre has alienated many supporters, but a look at the likely outcomes of the elections as judged by polling shows this to be a more-than-likely possibility.
Unlike previous years, the polls have shown a great deal of inconsistency. Over the past three to four weeks three separate companies—Latvijas fakti, Faktum and GfK—have produced different polls, as shown in this table:
Party ratings in August and September
|Harmony Centre||18.1% (29 MPs)||21% (25 MPs)||41 MPs|
|Zatlers Reform Party||17.3% (28 MPs)||22% (25 MPs)||18 MPs)|
|Unity||10.4% (17MPs)||16% (17MPs)||21 MPs|
|Union of Greens and Farmers||8.5% (14 MPs)||10% (11 MPs)||13 MPs|
|National Association||7.6% (12 MPs)||20% (22 MPs)||7 MPs|
|Others||Less than 2%
|11%, but less than
5% for each
The Latvijas fakti polling importantly indicated the undecided and non-participating voters, but Faktum does not, distributing the undecided among the other parties, while GfK does not give us any percentages, only the supposed number of deputies in the 100-member Saeima. According to both Latvijas fakti and Faktum, Harmony Centre and ZRP are neck-and-neck with Unity some distance behind, but with quite diferent outcomes predicted for the National Association. A potential coalition between ZRP, Unity and either the National Association or the Union of Greens and Farmers would appear to be on the cards. But Harmony Centre and ZRP could also go it on their own.
GfK, on the other hand, has put Harmony Centre way out in front, and the prediction of a stupendous 41 delegates in the early September poll is quite extraordinary. The polling company also sees Unity as pipping ZRP, and rates the National Association much lower. If the GfK poll is anything like correct, we can see an easy coalition between Harmony Centre and the pivotal Greens and Farmers, which has been influential in so many elections, has a kingmaker role and whose favouring of the arch oligarch Aivars Lembergs as prime minister reveals a total lack of political ethics and a willingness to do any deal to stay in power. It is the Greens and Farmers, as part of the current coalition government, that has often undermined Unity for its own ends.
In the polls before the last Saeima elections, Harmony Centre led in many polls, but was pipped in the election by Unity. A major factor here is in the undecided vote. The largely Russian voters who support Harmony Centre have usually clearly made their minds up well before the election. It is the Latvian voters who are most often undecided, but when they do make up their minds they will overwhelmingly go for one of the competing Latvian parties rather than Harmony Centre. This was the mechanism that enabled Unity to do so well in the last election, but it depended on getting the voters out in numbers.
Much depends on the mood of the electorate and whether they have enthusiasm for ZRP and Unity, or see little new in stock in Latvian politics, and have expended their passion on expelling the old Saeima, not electing the new.
Finally, if any coalition with Harmony Centre does come about, that may not be the end of the story. An organisation such as the NATO defense alliance may be quite interested in such a result, and decide not to share its secrets or in other ways put restrictions on a party that has close ties to Moscow. We will see.
Vote carefully in the coming election—a lot is at stake!
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