With elections for the Saeima, Latvia’s parliament, due this October, the first few months of 2006 have seen a stunning series of political scandals, manoeuvres and plain bloody-mindedness that have once more called into question the very basis of the Latvian political system.
Toward the end of 2005, one could have had some reason for thinking that the Latvian political party system was stabilising. With 10 months to go to the election, there seemed to be no surprise “newcomers” to the rank of political parties. For once, the elections were likely to be dominated by parties already in the Saeima. And despite seemingly endless petty friction between the coalition parties, particularly between New Era (Jaunais laiks) and Latvia’s First Party (Latvijas Pirmā partija), the coalition government of Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis seemed likely to last until the elections. Prospects such as the NATO defense alliance summit, scheduled in November in Rīga, and the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Championship in May indicated the amount of serious work the government needed to do.
Not so. In the very last days of 2005, a scandal enveloped New Era leader and Defence Minister Einars Repše, whose financial dealings had led to investigations of possible criminal activities. He resigned from his portfolio on Dec. 22. This was swiftly followed by heightened antagonism between New Era and the Latvia’s First Party, plus increased shakiness in the coalition as accusations of political interference surrounded the investigation into Repše.
Then came a curious proposal from the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un zemnieku savienība) to disallow any political advertising for the three months prior to an election. This extraordinary proposal—a much longer period than is ever stipulated for elections in any other democratic country—perhaps not surprisingly saw strong support from several parties that had been accused in the previous elections of vastly overspending the amounts allowed by law for election campaigns. Many see this proposal as a means of eventually evading the attention of the state Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, which has been investigating previous breaches. Another view is that this is a means of consolidating the existing parties and disallowing the emergence of any new party that relies on heavy pre-election campaigning. Interestingly, for the last Saeima elections in 2002, two new parties had campaigned heavily in the period before the election—both New Era and Latvia’s First Party. Significantly, New Era opposes the proposed restriction, but Latvia’s First Party is strongly in favour! As the proposal has endlessly been debated in the Saeima and its committees, however, a perhaps even more worrying aspect has emerged: the proposal also covers what is considered to be “hidden campaign advertising.” Any media commentary might be construed as favouring or recommending one party against another, in effect possibly limiting all political commentary and analysis.
In what is possibly to be the most significant event of 2006, in mid-March the country was rocked by the “Jūrmalgate” scandal. After the elections for the Jūrmala local government, a large sum of money (LVL 10,000) was reportedly offered to one deputy to vote in favour of a particular candidate as mayor. The delegate took the money but still voted the “wrong” way. Having received wind of this, anti-corruption bodies recorded the telephone calls by a number of those involved, including shady businessmen but also local and national politicians. Among those caught receiving phone calls on this subject and clearly agreeing to the bribe going ahead were two notables, Ainars Šlesers, the head-kicking transport minister and Latvia’s First Party icon, and Andris Šķēle, former prime minister and founder of the People’s Party (Tautas partija). While both immediately counter-attacked and declared this was a political setup by their enemies, the damage was considerable. Šlesers, still protesting his absolute innocence, was sacked by Kalvītis.
The scandal showed the cynicism of politicians dividing up power among themselves and being willing to bribe to achieve their ends. By a fluke of timing, these highly revealing events succeeded somewhat in driving into the background the usual mid-March Latvian political disaster: March 16, a day previously used as a commemoration by members of the Latvian Legion (the World War II Latvian armed forces that fought against the Soviet Union as part of Germany’s Waffen-SS, or Schutzstaffel). While the old soldiers now no longer march on this day, extremists of both the left and right still use this date as a time of flexing their muscles, always attracting international media attention that dwells on past wars and atrocities and the fist-fights of the day. On this occasion, the authorities took the unprecedented step of closing off the Freedom Monument, the traditional focus of the day, with limp and contradictory excuses about “repairs.” The participants were reduced to mild shoulder-shoving at their gathering place at the other end of the Old Town. One can only hope the international media were too bored by this occasion to ever come back.
But still worse was to come. Tensions in the government coalition continued to grow into April. One event was the extraordinarily inept handling of the distribution of European structural readjustment funds to entrepreneurs by Economics Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, the New Era Party’s No. 2. Criticism and, again, threat of criminal investigation followed. In hot reaction to this as another political setup, and to Šlesers’ involvement in Jūrmalgate, Repše engaged in serious brinkmanship by demanding that Kalvītis choose between Latvia’s First Party and New Era. When Kalvītis refused to throw Latvia’s First Party out of the coalition, Repše in a sullen performance withdrew New Era from the government (even refusing to shake Kalvītis’ hand at their crucial final meeting). While New Era was seen to be the instigator of the coalition breakdown, there was clearly anticipation of this by Kalvītis. In record speed new ministers were found to replace the New Era ministers, and a minority coalition government was shored up.
Indeed the losers so far seem to be Repše and New Era, which lost its accustomed spot as one of Latvia’s more popular political parties. April surveys showed New Era’s popularity down 4 percentage points compared to March. While I earlier commented on Repše’s more sober performance as defence minister in the latter half of 2005—a welcome change from his previous highly idiosyncratic property dealings and personal style—his highly personal and willful reaction to events this year has endangered both himself and his party. Even some party members now believe New Era could be more attractive to voters without Repše. And all bets on a stable party system are off.
It will be a rough road in the less than five months left to the election.
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