Latvia faces desperate Saeima election

An unpleasant and seemingly hopeless air surrounds the coming 9th Saeima election on Oct. 7. A quite spiteful pre-election campaign has seen accusations, counter-accusations and dirty tricks flying around every major party. In the most recent September polls a record number of people were still undecided about who to vote for, and many have decided not to vote at all.

Two of the latest September polls—one from the eight largest Latvian cities, the other conducted across the whole country—although differing a little in figures do not differ in overall relativities of the parties, indicating reliability. Most strikingly, Jaunais laiks (New Era) has continued its long popularity slide and now sits in fourth place with about 10 percent of the vote. Tautas partija (People’s Party) tops the polls, with the urban poll giving it 20 percent but the national poll 13 percent. The pro-Moscow Par cilvēku tiesībām vienotā Latvijā (For Human Rights in a United Latvia, or PCTVL) comes in second in the urban poll and third in the national poll, while Zaļo un Zemnieku Savienība (Union of Greens and Farmers, or ZZS) comes in second in the national poll and third in the cities poll. A finding of both polls is that a large number of parties may garner the 5 percent needed to be in the Saiema—perhaps seven (one more that in the current parliament) or even eight parties. Apart from the parties mentioned so far, Latvijas Pirmā Partija (First Party of Latvia, which is on the ballot together with Latvijas Ceļš), the more modestly Moscow-oriented Saskaņas centrs (Harmony Centre), Tēvzemei un brīvībai / LNNK (For Fatherland and Freedom, or TB/LNNK) and Latvijas Sociāldemokrātiskā Strādnieku partija (Latvian Social Democratic Labor Party, or LSDSP) all have scored 5 percent or more in one of the polls.

Smearing, dirty tricks and deceptions have been at the fore of campaigning. Almost weekly real or purported bugged telephone calls have been used to discredit one or the other party, so much so that there is now serious concern that various parts of the bureaucracy or individual corrupt officials with phone tapping powers have acted politically.

Another scandal involves groups close to Tautas Partija but acting under the umbrella of a civil society organisation sponsoring a television advertising campaign that consists of unalloyed praise for the current coalition government, thus apparently circumventing stricter campaign spending laws for political parties. And Latvijas Pirmā Partija, with its strange mix of religious ministers and oligarchs (the head-kicking plutocrat Ainārs Šlesers is its leader)—and infamous now for its virulent attacks on gay rights—continues to play its morality card on every issue, while its accident-prone Interior Minister Dzintars Jaundžeikars continues to make a mess of trying to reform the police and deal with other crises.

While scandals abound, two factors of a more substantial kind are clearly at work in recent trends. First, the simple advantage of incumbency is strongly helping all the coalition parties (Tautas partija, Latvijas Pirmā Partija and ZZS). They are seen to be working, and they prosper from this. And the ZZS hopes to prosper further by gaining the support of controversial Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, much criticised for possible corruption by some but praised for energetic wealth-producing civic leadership by others. He has nominated as that party’s candidate for prime minister.

By the same token, the second factor has been the continuing decline of Jaunais laiks. Its leader Einars Repše is under a cloud and was forced to resign as defense minister over money matters, but this seems now the least of his worries. His erratic behaviour and personal aggrandisement has turned off many including some in his own party, and he has even given the unprecedented advice to voters to cast ballots for his party, but to strike his name out if they find him personally unacceptable. Jaunais laiks has drawn new candidates, most significantly Sandra Kalniete, a former foreign minister and provisional European Commissioner, but the party is finding it hard going. Jaunais laiks has not been helped by a number of scandals, including the Jūrmala City Council where all three of the party’s members on the Council were expelled from the ranks after they did not follow its directives on significant local planning issues. And now the phone taps… But this is above all a legacy of the party leaving a difficulty coalition government (twice!) and giving it a reputation of not being able to work constructively with other parties, fatal in a political system where coalitions are the norm. Opposition has proven to be a wilderness, clearly a tactical mistake.

How Latvians outside Latvia vote

The 8th Saeima elections in 2002 were a significant turnaround in the way that citizens outside Latvia voted. Up until then, citizens abroad had been for the most part strong supporters of the more nationalist parties, particularly TB/LNNK. But in the 2002 elections some 52 percent voted for Jaunais laiks and only 12 percent for TB/LNNK, with smaller votes going to PCTVL (6 percent, largely voters in Russia and Israel), ZZS (5 percent only for the traditional party of pre-World War II leader Kārlis Ulmanis) and Tautas Partija (5 percent).

This represented a significant rebuff for TB/LNNK. Jaunais laiks’ promise of competent and uncorrupted government was a stronger drawcard than the still rather raw nationalism of the TB/LNNK, a quite historic shift of allegiances from voters outside Latvia who had been very much sticking to older conservative and anti-Russian political views. Can TB/LNNK win this electorate back? In its latest policy statement, TB/LNNK has tried to shift attention onto socio-economic issues, particularly the extent of poverty and inequality that it sees as threatening the Latvian nation as much as bad national policies. Yet its platform still contains all the old ethno-national chestnuts that have painted it into a corner: it wants to stop naturalisation (an absurd, not to say dangerous, policy), make all teaching in schools in Latvian only (equally unrealistic, when the present compromise over 60-40 teaching in secondary schools is working), make it easier to strip citizenship off those unloyal to Latvia and other smaller nationalist idiocies.

Readers who can understand Latvian would do well to see the sharp but very fair critique of this party offered on the political analysis Web site

The same Web site also has an incisive analysis of the woes that have befallen Jaunais laiks. Despite its problems, the party still represents in a sense the newest voice in Latvian politics and its promises have not been completely empty. For example, over the past few years there has been more and more unmasking of corruption by better-functioning anti-corruption bodies, very much in line with the party’s intent. Many voters may still be tempted to trust this party one more time, even if they strike out Repše. But the party will be hard put to overcome its seeming lack of political nous and instead embrace hard work, persistence (particularly persistence in government) and internal discipline from the leader down. It still seems as if Jaunais laiks is more concerned with principles than practice. As a somewhat telling example of this approach, veteran western Latvian leader and activist Uldis Grava recently circulated a letter strongly urging voters to vote for Jaunais laiks (of which he is a member), but advanced no arguments for why they should, gave no critique of other parties or details of what Jaunais laiks stands for, instead simply saying that he had found them very honest politicians and basically good guys.

Voters, whether inside or outside Latvia, are not faced with easy choices. Yet in what may be a close election, each vote paradoxically will be extremely valuable in deciding the outcome.

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