From horse race to horse-trading

The Saeima (parliament) elections are over. Now a new government is formed. Right? In Latvia it is never quite that easy.

According to the Latvian constitution, after an election the president can invite anyone he or she feels is capable of forming a government to do so. By convention the president would look first to the largest parties represented in the Saeima or to any major coalitions that are being formed, but there are no prescriptions for who should be asked.

And in any case the final decision is not up to the president. Ultimately, a government can only be formed if that particular coalition and its candidates for prime minister and the cabinet have the support of the Saeima.

So, horse-trading is the order of the day, not unusual in European coalition-building politics, but in Latvia still with its own unusual features. In the 8th Saeima elections Einars Repše and his New Era Party (Jaunais laiks) won the largest number of seats. He is expected to head a coalition government as prime minister. This outcome appeared relatively predictable in the beginning, but has increasingly become bogged down in battles over appointments of ministers from among the potential coalition members. Repše, once hoping for an clear majority for his party to avoid coalition weakness, is now ironically embroiled in it.

The likely coalition parties are the First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā partija), For Fatherland and Freedom /Latvian National Independence Movement (TB/LNNK) and the Greens and Farmers Union (Zaļo un zemnieku savienība). All these parties have broadly similar views on a range of economic, foreign and domestic issues, but that does not make the dealing easier. In fact, each party has to work hard to maintain its own distinct identity and appeal to its current and potential electors. And in the face of this ideals of good government and orderly coalition building recede into the background. At the time of writing, the Greens and Farmers Union seemed to be presenting the most difficult demands: promised the agriculture and environment ministries, it is holding out for at least one more high-ranking ministry, but that’s opposed by other coalition members.

It is comical, or perhaps tragic, that all the smaller coalition members have been trying to avoid several ministries, including social welfare, local government, social integration and regional development—all potentially difficult appointments for any incumbent.

The other curious aspect of this process is that Repše pointedly has not been talking with the other large centre-right party in the Saeima, Andris Šķēle’s People’s Party (Tautas partija). Repše has been critical of the People’s Party’s performance in the past, and of Šķēle in particular once his own administrations ran into the familiar problems of corruption and poor management.

Moreover, there is some wariness of creating a “grand coalition” government where too many of the largest parties are in power. Such arrangements seem to guarantee peace for a time but ultimately lead to great voter frustration as policy directions are always compromises.

But above all, the People’s Party in its stated policies is also very close to New Era, and the issue of maintaining a distinction between it and any other party is very much in New Era’s mind. So it’s “no” to the People’s Party.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of all this to an outside observer is not the horse-dealing but the rather leisurely way in which it all takes place. No outcome should be expected until the Saeima meets in early November, and even then it is not certain there will be a decisive outcome. Talks behind the scenes go on all the time but publicly there are only occasional meetings and announcements, and very often news of government formation is relegated to the back pages. No one is in a hurry, and to have a country drift without a clear government (the outgoing government of Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš is in caretaker mode) does not seem to faze anyone.

While the makeup of the new government is difficult to predict, it is useful to remember that a New Era-led coalition could still fail to materialise. In that case New Era and probably the First Party of Latvia would go into opposition, while a government could be formed by a coaltion of the People’s Party, the Greens and Farmers Union, and For Human Rights in a United Latvia (Par cilvēka tiesībām vienotā Latvijā, or PCTVL). PCTVL is the other big winner in the 8th Saeima and has declared its willingness to work with any party except the nationalist TB/LNNK. PCTVL has been in coalition government in the Rīga City Council and in several other local governments, thus patiently building its local reputation, and has had the advantage of always being the most vocal opposition voice to national centre-right governments.

A “grand coalition,” where Repše has to join with Šķēle, also cannot be entirely discounted.

Of course, there’s always the potential for a surprise.

Although perhaps unlikely to apply in this case, the Latvian parliamentary system is one where you do not have to be a member of the Saeima in order to be a minister—even a prime minister. This provision was used when the Latvia’s Way coalition after the 6th Saeima election could not agree on a candidate for prime minister from among its ranks. Instead, it picked well-known businessman Šķēle, who at the time was not a member of the Saeima and who had no political party base. Šķēle made the most of his opportunity and eventually formed the People’s Party, which is still well represented in the new Saeima.

This time around, could a potential stand-off be avoided by designating an outside candidate for prime minister? While it would be hard for Repše to stand aside, stranger outcomes have been known.

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