Latvia appears headed toward another murky presidential election

Speculation over the looming presidential election is intensifying in Latvia, and the fate of incumbent Valdis Zatlers—who announced he is available for a second term but who is opposed by many—is clearly hanging in the balance.

Meanwhile, issues of language and education have once again come to the fore with some unusually alarmist warnings about potential ethnic strife if a referendum approves that all teaching in state–financed schools be in Latvian only.

Uncertainty over the next president

The next president will be elected by the Saeima (Parliament) in mid-year. In Latvia’s strongly parliamentarian constitutional system, the president is largely a symbolic figure, with limited political powers. However, the past two presidents, Zatlers and before him Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, have turned the job into a less purely symbolic position and have had greater political influence.

The significant problem of the presidential election is the complete absence of rules and transparency as to how the Saeima goes about the process. Infamously, Zatlers himself, a successful and respected medico with no real political background, was persuaded to stand (at a meeting at a zoo!) by a handful of oligarchs, and his election rammed through the Saeima despite widespread protests.

In something of an irony, Zatlers slowly proved that he was no lapdog of the then-ruling People’s Party (Tautas partija) and was not remiss in criticising the previous Saeima and government. Zatlers is certainly not the most charismatic of presidents, but in his doggedly persistent style he demanded and got several changes to the electoral laws and to laws relating to how the Saeima can be dismissed. He also demanded a more transparent process in electing future presidents, which has only been half realised. Now there must be a public announcement of a list of possible candidates before the Saeima decides, but otherwise the selection process can still be less than transparent.

It is clear that the oligarch parties—the rump of the People’s Party and their mates in the For a Good Latvia! (Par labu Latviju), as well as elements of the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, or ZZS)—are happy to ditch their once favoured son and go for someone more malleable. ZZS in particular still promotes its controversial Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, who has been accused of corruption, as a candidate.

This leaves the leading government party Unity (Vienotība), which is in coalition with the ZZS, in a difficult position, being virtually forced to back Zatlers, fearing a more oligarch-friendly candidate may get the job. The ZZS has recently been clearly flexing its political muscles, and on several occasions has been able to get its candidates for various positions accepted by different alliances in the Saeima against Unity’s desires, putting strains on the coalition. The presidential election promises to be one more such battleground.

Schools teaching in Latvian only?

On the language front, the campaign by the nationalist bloc in the Saeima to have all state-financed schools switch to teaching in Latvian only has moved to the next stage. The proposal relates to the long-standing issue of Latvia still having a large Russian-language primary and secondary school system, a heritage from the Soviet period.

Although these schools now all teach an increasing number of subjects in Latvian, and in secondary schools the proportion taught in Latvian must be at least 60 percent, the existence of the Russian school system continues to prop up a very divided society.

For the National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!” – “Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”) this has been anathema, and it has proposed that starting with the first grade in September 2012, progressively all teaching in the Russian stream schools will take place in Latvian. Moreover, the nationalists want this written into the constitution.

The nationalists’ proposal was defeated in the Saeima, but they are now using the mechanism of a referendum to gain support.

In Latvia’s referendum system, such changes to the constitution may be proposed by the citizens, and the first step is gathering 10,000 notarised signatures by citizens who support such a change. This number of signatures has now been gathered, which will cause the Central Election Commission in turn to start another signature-gathering exercise, this time financed by the state. If 10 percent of the eligible number of voters sign in this phase (around 153,000 signatures are needed), then the Saeima must debate the proposal. If the Saeima approves the proposal, it will become part of the constitution. However, if the Saeima disagrees, then the issue goes to a referendum. It is not an easy path for such a constitutional change, but a possible one.

Although the issue has been around for years, the success in gathering these initial signatures has brought a remarkable reaction. As a copycat response, a small Russian splinter party started its own signature-collecting campaign, this time calling for Russian to be made the second official state language. Launched with great fanfare, the campaign ran into a farcical situation when most of the early keen signers were in fact not citizens of Latvia, hence ineligible to sign. We also saw a paradoxical situation that the Russia-leaning party Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs) opposed the move. Harmony Centre is no friend of the Russian splinter parties, even though several if its individual politicians have not so privately supported the idea. Harmony Centre policy remains support for one official language only—Latvian. The party has been very clearly positioning itself not to alienate ethnic Latvian voters, showing strains over the issue. An independent social survey revealed that some 35 percent of Latvia’s residents supported Russian as a second official language, but 63 percent opposed it. Non-citizens constituted a significant proportion of those supporting Russian.

More ominous responses were not long in coming. Already during the initial signature-gathering, some politicians—particularly from the pro-Moscow For Human Rights in United Latvia (Par cilvēku tiesībām vienotā Latvijā), which no longer is in the Saeima—threatened violence if the nationalists’ constitutional amendment is accepted, as it would mean a virtual elimination of the Russian school system. These words were echoed in early April by Europarliamentarian Aleksandrs Mirskis, who threatened a “civil war” if the proposal is accepted. Mirskis called European attention to what he called a direct threat to Russian identity and Russian schools, and claimed that proponents of the constitutional amendment were “nationalists and Nazis” in the Saeima, igniting further passions. While the rather idiosyncratic and usually aloof Mirskis is not a significant political force in Latvia, this is an unusual extreme example of rhetoric, where politicians of all sides tend to be more circumspect over issues of integration and nationality.

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