The past two weeks have brought two of the biggest political shocks yet seen in Latvia’s 20 years of renewed independence.
On May 28, President Valdis Zatlers used a previously never activated constitutional power to recommend the dissolution of the parliament—the Saeima. The action leads automatically to a referendum, scheduled July 23, on whether the Saeima should be dissolved.
If the majority of voters agree, then we head for new elections, less than a year since balloting for the 10th Saeima in October. In a delicious constitutional twist, if the voters do not agree to dissolve the Saeima, then the president himself must step down.
There is little doubt the referendum will overwhelmingly decide on dissolution. The immediate instigation for Zatlers was a scandalous vote in the parliament just a few days before his announcement. The Saeima failed to allow a search of MP Ainārs Šlesers’s house by the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs, or KNAB). Šlesers is one of Latvia’s more odious oligarchs with a long history of tying his political interests to his business interests. As a parliamentarian he has immunity from criminal investigation, an immunity that can be lifted by the Saeima.
For Zatlers it was the last straw, one more instance of the Saeima using its powers to obstruct justice and protect the most wealthy and powerful. This parliament and the previous one during the past couple of years have made a number of decisions related to appointments and other matters that have gone clearly against the national interest.
Zatlers’s annoucement was met with surprise. In a rare cameo, those who were most tongue-tied and least able to comprehend were the oligarchs themselves, not only Šlesers but also his political ally Andris Šķēle and Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs. They initially simply did not know how to react, before regaining their composure after a few days and setting out to destroy Zatlers.
The second shock came as a direct consequence of the first, for the week after Zatlers’s announcement, the election of the next president was scheduled. In Latvia the president is elected by the Saiema for a four-year term, and Zatlers‘s time in office ends July 9.
The method of electing the president, particularly the process of nomination, is not spelt out in the constitution. Candidates have appeared in the past from all kinds of unlikely sources. Zatlers, a surgeon who was not involved in politics, was persuaded to stand for president four years ago—in a now infamous meeting in the Rīga Zoo—by the oligarchs he is now criticising.
For a long time Zatlers (who was eligible for a second term) was the only announced candidate for this year’s election. He received endorsements from the leading Unity (Vienotība) party and ironically by Šlesers’s party, For a Good Latvia! (Par labu Latviju!).
But a few weeks ago another candidate was nominated by members of the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, or ZZS): Andris Bērziņs, an old-time fat cat from the Soviet era, a man successful as a party apparatchik in that regime, who after independence became a banker and board member of some of the larger privatised companies.
A typically hypocritical non-debate then ensued about who would be the better candidate, with ZZS members making contradictory statements. However, most parliamentarians did not publicly commit, nor did they need they commit. In one of Latvia’s most undemocratic conventions, parliament elects the president—and other top appointments—by secret ballot!
Although seen by many as a lapdog appointment by the oligarchs four years ago, Zatlers showed a considerable degree of independence as he grew into the job, and made a number of critical interventions into local politics. So, even though Šlesers’s party at least publicly supported him, Bērziņš‘s candidature seemed to indicate the oligarchs were looking for a safer option.
Zatlers’s bombshell move to dissolve the Saeima clearly mobilised all the oligarch powers against him, but it was no plain sailing for them. To be elected president, a candidate has to receive 51 votes in the 100-seat Saeima.
In the first vote on June 2, Bērziņš only received 50 votes to Zatlers’s 43. As many commentators mentioned, something had gone awry with the oligarchs’ plan. In the second ballot Berziņš scored 53 votes to Zatlers’s 41. Three MPs had been found to change their vote, by means or reasons still unknown.
Two significant outcomes of this dark process can be pointed to, and one brief speculation may be worth airing. First, in relation to Zatlers himself, he has now become a hero for many who were dubious about his nomination four years ago, while those who supported him then now see him as the Devil incarnate. There has been much speculation about his political future. Will he form his own political party? Unity members have invited him to join them. Clearly Zatlers has grown in statute to become a significant political figure.
Secondly, the election of Bērziņš (who incidentally denies that so-called oligarchs have any influence on Latvian politics) once more showed the tenuous position of the leading Unity party, particularly in light of the continuing undermining by its coalition partner ZZS. Facing a decline in the polls and internal bickering, Unity has attempted to revitialise itself after Zatlers’s announcement, but now faces an uphill battle to make sure it is still the largest party after the elections.
To speculate further on Latvia’s surprising politics: If this is the first time a president has recommended dissolving the Saeima, could it be that if Bērzīņs really is seen to be protecting vested interests, he could become the first Latvian president to be impeached by the Saeima?
We await the referendum of July 23 and then the new Saeima elections. Will they bring the desired change to a more democratic Latvian politics?
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