Five More Years for Some, New Career for Others

The European Parliament election that took place last weekend throughout Europe was significant for a number of reasons. For one thing, there was every expectation that more radically inclined candidates would do particularly well from extremist parties such as the National Front in France, UKIP in Great Britain, Golden Dawn in Greece, and so on. In the event, representatives of such groups could, in some cases, crow about victory once the votes were counted, but it is likely that they will face something of a cold shower when they get to Brussels, because their total numbers remain comparatively insignificant against the 751 Euro MPs who were elected in total, and it is also true that extremists tend to be holier than thou about their beliefs, and there is no particular reason to believe that all of them, whether major whack jobs or minor loonies, will find common ground on much of anything.

It is also true that this time around the European Union tried to be all democratic about the process of finding a new chairman for the European Commission. The various political groups in the EP nominated candidates, the candidates trotted around Europe to take part in debates, and it was generally declared that the political group that got the most votes would be the political group that would provide the next chairman (as opposed to selecting the chairman via behind-the-scenes bargaining, as has been the case in the past). In the event, candidates headed toward membership in the European People’s Party group nosed out candidates from the Socialists and Democrats group, and the EPP candidate, Jean Claude Juncker, immediately declared readiness to take over the top spot. Not so quick, said the others. At this writing, it is not a done deal.

In Latvia, as usual, more than a dozen parties and alliances put up candidates for election, and, also as usual, only a few actually surmounted the 5% vote barrier that is required to win any seats at all. Readers will probably know that these were Unity, which exceeded all possible expectations by winning nearly one-half of the overall vote, the National Alliance, which came in at 14%, Harmony in at 13%, the Latvian Alliance of the Green Party and Farmers Union (ZZS) at 8%, and the Latvian Association of Russians finishing the list with 6%. Down at the bottom of the list was a political party called “Sovereignty,” which managed to poll a magnificent 599 votes, or 0.13%.

Of the eight candidates who were elected to the EP, four are returning to the EP for a second or, in two cases, a third term. These are Sandra Kalniete and Krišjānis Kariņš from Unity (second term), Roberts Zīle from the National Alliance, and Tatjana Ždanoka from the Association of Russians (third term in both cases). Also winning a seat for Unity was former Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who has been a member of the EP in the past. The newcomers are former Defense Minister Artis Pabriks for Unity, former television journalist Andrejs Mamikins for Harmony, and Latvian MP Iveta Grigule for the ZZS. Mr. Dombrovskis is going to be Latvia’s nominee for a post on the European Commission (and, dare one whisper it, perhaps a dark horse, last-minute candidate for the chairmanship), so his seat is going to become vacant once the EC is set up, and that will allow Inese Vaidere from Unity to return to the EP, also for a second term.

These eight people were elected to the EP by a comparatively small proportion of Latvia’s electorate – just 30% or so. Saturday, May 24, when the vote took place, was a lovely day in Latvia, temperatures up in the 30s if you’re apt to think in Celsius terms or 80s if you’re a Fahrenheit type of person. That sent many people to their gardens or to the beach. Another issue was that voters in the election could not vote in any precinct they choose, they had to go to their specifically assigned precinct, based on where they were actually registered as residents. Many people in Latvia actually don’t live where they’re registered. And, of course, there are plenty of folks who don’t give a damn about the European Parliament.

I personally believe that this is terribly regrettable. Even if you are planning a day at the beach, go vote first, for heaven’s sake. If your thinking is that Latvia’s eight Euro MPs can’t get anything done, then you’re wrong, and if that’s your belief, why vote in any election at all? I have never missed a vote here in Latvia, whether at the local, national or international level or in the context of a referendum. I consider it my duty as a citizen of Latvia. Apparently I am in the minority in this belief.

Mrs. Grigule distinguished herself in this election by running a massive individual campaign. For the past year, she has been crisscrossing Latvia for various kinds of events. She has published several editions of a newsletter all about herself that were distributed in mailboxes near and far (the words “junk mail” sprang to mind every time I opened my mailbox to find one). True, Mrs. Grigule has been rather shady about where she got the money to do all of this, and she pretty much refused to take part in various debates with other candidates, but her activism was enough to allow her to jump from third place on the ZZS candidate list to first (readers may know that in Latvia, you select a party for which to vote, but then you can put a little plus sign next to the names of candidates whom you particularly favor and cross out those whom you do not like as much). True, big individual spending didn’t work for everyone. Another very visible candidate on posters and the like was the former director of the Latvian National Opera, Andrejs Žagars, who was running on behalf of a new political party called For Latvia’s Development. In the event, the party only won 2% of the vote or so, so no seat for Mr. Žagars.

Mrs. Ždanoka, in turn, needed 28,303 votes to ensure her election against 445,000 actual voters and a potential electorate of around 1.4 million. This is what happens when you’re too lazy to get your butt off the couch and go vote, as one of our more cynical commentators put it here in Latvia. Mrs. Ždanoka has spent her two terms at the European Parliament pursuing the interests not of the Republic of Latvia, but those of the Russian Federation. She has stated support for the idea of reestablishing the Soviet Union, perhaps in a version that she calls “USSR 2.0.” She has constantly claimed that Latvia’s government is hostile toward the interests of “Russian speakers” in the country and that fascism and neo-Nazism are rife in our country. Now she’s going to be back for another five years of such balderdash. True, Mrs. Ždanoka rather much shot herself in the foot with her immense enthusiasm over the “referendum” via which the good people of Crimea happily voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia instead. Her political group at the EP, the Greens/European Free Alliance, grumped about this to the point of suggesting that perhaps she will not be welcome in the group in the new session of the EP. Time will tell whether this comes to pass.

Mr. Mamikins, like Mrs. Grigule, was not first on the list of Harmony candidates. He was fourth. For many years, Mr. Mamikins hosted a popular Russian language television program on the TV5 channel, “No Censorship,” and it is likely that this helped him to gain the recognition that was necessary to move ahead of three other candidates. Among them is the veteran Latvian politician Boriss Cilēvičs, and no one has been less fortunate than he when it comes to EP elections. Ten years ago he was top of the list of a party that fell just short of the necessary 5%, five years ago he was second on the list but was pipped at the post by two others who were below him, and now this upstart from TV land beat him once again. So it goes.

Latvian citizens outside of Latvia cast a total of 2,369 valid votes. The Central Election Commission told me that it does not have data about where each of those votes were cast, but fully 72% of foreign voters cast their ballots for Unity, leaving the National Alliance (18%) far behind. No other party or alliance was even close to the 5% among foreign voters.

The bottom line here is that those citizens who actually did go to cast votes were largely rational. Mrs. Kalniete, Mr. Kariņš and Mrs. Vaidere have done a good, solid job at the European Parliament. Mr. Kariņš has distinguished himself as an expert on energy issues and has been the chief rapporteur on several pieces of legislation – something that is a big deal in the EP. National Alliance voters could have chosen a more nationalistically inclined candidate, but they chose to send Mr. Zīle back to Brussels. He, in turn, is known in the EP as an expert on transportation issues.

As for Harmony, the 13% that it got can be attributed very directly to the fact that this time around, so-called “Russian” voters were spoiled for choice. As noted, Mrs. Ždanoka ran separately, but so did two outgoing members of the EP who were elected five years ago from the Harmony list – former Soviet Latvian Communist Party boss (and convicted traitor) Alfrēds Rubiks, and Aleksandrs Mirskis, who this time represented the Latvian Socialist Party and a party called “Alternative” respectively. If you count up the total vote of Harmony, the Russian Association, the Socialist Party and “Alternative,” you get pretty close to the share of the vote that Harmony won in the last parliamentary election and almost precisely to the share of the vote that was cast in favor of a referendum a few years back to grant the status of a state language to the Russian language. This time the vote was split, and severely split.

This leads to the question of whether one can extrapolate the results of the European election for the purposes of the next parliamentary election, which is coming up on October 4 of this year. Here is a comparison of the votes received by each relevant party in the last election in 2011 and the EP election this year:

Party 2011 election EP election
Harmony 28.61% 13.04%
Unity 19.00% 46.19%
ZZS 12.32% 8.26%
National Alliance 14.00% 14.25%

Here we see that the NA’s electorate appears to be fairly stable (in the 2013 local government election, the party received around 17% of the vote in Rīga, presenting itself as the main opposition to the ruling cabal of Harmony Center and the oddly named Honor to Serve Rīga alliance). The ZZS did better in 2011 than it did this year, and it is likely that a substantial proportion of those 8.26% of voters cast their ballots for the ZZS specifically because of Mrs. Grigule’s campaign. Unity, in turn, did much, much better this time around than last, and Harmony did much, much worse. Is there reason to believe that the same will happen in October?

Well, no. Unity had a superstar team of candidates for the European election, and by sending many of its potential election “locomotives” to Brussels, it has left itself with a paucity of possible “locomotives” this autumn. Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma is no great orator, and the fact is that the most popular members of Unity at this time are people who have recently joined the party from the now almost defunct Reform Party – people such as Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs and Education Minister Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis (no relation to the former prime minister). There is going to be a great ruckus when it comes time to put together the parliamentary candidate list in advance of October’s election. Even within Unity without the new arrivals from the RP there are factions and factions of factions which can be plenty quarrelsome. It won’t be easy.

As for Harmony, it has been busily rebranding itself as a “social democratic” party and trying to divert people’s attention from the fact that it still has a contractual partner in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial United Russia party, that it continues to be congenitally unable to admit to the fact that Latvia suffered military occupation between the two world wars, and so on. The 28% of the vote that Harmony got in the 2011 election will be endangered this year if the aforementioned Socialist Party, “Alternative” and the Russian Association take part in the election. In the past, Harmony has pretty much had a lock on the “Russian” vote. That may not be the case this year.

The ZZS has a fairly locked-in electorate in Latvia, and voters in October will probably be thinking about different issues than those that applied to the European vote. It should do OK. And, as noted, the NA also has a fairly fixed electorate, and it is unlikely that it will do much better or worse in the autumn than it has in the past.

Latvians, too, will as ever be presented with a bewildering panoply of parties. Mr. Žagars’ For Latvia’s Development was established by Latvia’s fairly eccentric former Prime Minister Einars Repše. Then there is the Latvian Regional Alliance, whose existence as a “regional” kind of party may not have addressed too many people who were thinking at the continental and not regional level, but that may well not be true in a national election. Former National Auditor Ingūna Sudraba is establishing a party called From the Heart for Latvia, and her popularity as auditor may have something to do with her results in October (though the process has not been particularly promising – the thing that people most remember about the news conference at which Mrs. Sudraba presented her movement is that she fainted during the process).

In short, the vote in October will not be anywhere near the vote in last weekend’s European Parliament election. I believe that it is certain that seats in Parliament will be won by Unity, Harmony, the ZZS and the NA, the main question being whether Unity or Harmony comes out on top. The ability of the aforementioned other parties to get to the electorate will be circumscribed by the fact that political advertising on television is banned for a full month before each election. But for readers of this commentary and for all voters in Latvia’s various elections, the question is the same: Which parties are most likely to work hard on behalf of Latvia, her people, her economy, her security, and her future? There’s plenty of time yet to make up your mind, but already in May I am prepared to offer this suggestion: Don’t vote for the petty parties. That will only be a waste of your ballot, because the votes of those parties which get less than 5% are distributed among the parties that get more than 5%, and if you vote for a petty party thinking that your vote will go to Unity or the NA, it may equally well go to Harmony, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?

Kārlis Streips was born in Chicago, studied journalism at the University of North Illinois and University of Maryland. He moved to Latvia in 1991 where he has worked as a TV and radio journalist. He also works as a translator and lecturer at the University of Latvia.

One thought on “Five More Years for Some, New Career for Others”_en

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