The peculiarities of the Latvian electoral system fade in comparison to the complexities of Latvian political parties. The seeming unpredictability and instability of the party system is well illustrated in this period of build-up to the Saeima (parliament) elections on Oct. 5.
Currently we see:
- Twenty parties or coalitions are competing in the elections, with anything up to half that number having a chance of gaining seats in the Saeima.
- The most popular party in the pre-election period is a new one—Jaunais laiks (New Era)—which is loudly arguing it wishes to be an unprecedented animal, that is, a party with a majority in its own right. It appears set to be the largest, though probably not majority, party in the new Saeima.
- Several established parties are fighting for their lives, mindful of what happened in the previous (7th Saeima) elections in 1999 when two of the largest parties elected in 1996 failed to be reelected at all!
- Having emerged from the Soviet Union, Latvia adopted a restricted citizenship, excluding Soviet period settlers from voting, a view endorsed by virtually every party of significance. However, the one party that is arguing for unrestricted citizenship, changes to language laws, and which is most pro-Russian in its politics, is now steadily maintaining its place as the second most popular party in Latvia: the coalition For Human Rights in Unified Latvia (Par cilvēka tiesībām vienotā Latvijā, or PCTVL).
- The conservative, rural Farmers Union (Zemnieku savienība), historically one of Latvia’s strongest parties has been revived and has entered into a highly unusual coalition with the Greens (Zaļā partija)—a hitherto never seen coalition in any liberal democracy.
- That, meanwhile, the most dominant party in Latvian politics is not the largest. Latvia’s Way (Latvijas ceļš) has not been the largest party in the Saeima after the last two elections, but has been in every government coalition and supplied the bulk of prime ministers.
The poor voter could well be forgiven for needing a stiff shot of Melnais balzāms to believe all this is happening and wondering how to make a choice from this muddle.
How did Latvia get to this situation?
First, in the four Saeima elections before World War II, the party system would have been broadly recognisable to anyone familiar with European politics. The two largest parties in all Saeimas were the Latvian Social Democratic Labour Party on the left, and the Farmers Union on the right. There were then several smaller left, right or centre parties that made various coalitions possible. This reflected the standard pattern of representation in European parliaments right down to the present day. Complicating this matter slightly in Latvia was the preponderance of very tiny parties (through proportional representation, 1 percent of the vote gave you a seat). Some of these microparties were hard to place on a left-right continuum, but they did not affect the overall look of the Saeima.
The post-Soviet period has seen a very different party logic.
Instead of a recognisable left-right spectrum, the Soviet experience and the necessity to re-establish a Latvian state made national questions far more relevant than any left or right distinctions. Virtually all parties (except for PCTVL) supported a particular direction on these national questions: restricted citizenship, Latvian language laws and pro-European Union and pro-NATO policies. This did not mean all the parties were overtly nationalistic in any extreme way, though often this is how they were portrayed. With most parties more or less agreeing on these issues, the parliament has been dominated by the parties of what could be called a managerial or bureaucratic middle, such as Latvia’s Way and other centrist parties.
But that’s only part of the story. While there was broad agreement on national directions, the lack of economic progress and instances of breakdown of social order proved difficult or any government or party to handle. Almost hydraulically, parties that have been prominent in one election often suffer at the next. This has resulted in an increasing suspicion of politicians—particularly of those who held posts in the Soviet period—that they are continuing their old ways of corruption and authoritarianism.
This leads to the next two significant features in the pattern of party representation.
One feature is the continual rise and fall of populist or managerialist parties claiming grandiosely to be able to put things right, to drive out corrupt politicians, but themselves falling due to their own inability to change matters (particularly economically) or, as it turned out, their own corruption. Thus, neither of the two largest parties elected in 1996 were reelected in 1999. One was the Joachim Zigerists’ “For Latvia” organisation, a clearly populist party that gave out material rewards to voters (the infamous bananas and beer!) and criticised established politicians for their inability to help the poor. The other, Saimnieks (Economist) consisted of Soviet era managers arguing they would put things managerially right again but fell through their own overt corruption.
Second, in a situation where most party platforms often seem identical, irrelevant or untrustworthy, many voters see salvation in finding the right, non-corrupt and trustworthy individual, rather than a particular party. At the pervious Saeima elections, a new party, the People’s Party (Tautas partija) was the largest single party, headed by a successful and popular businessman and former Prime Minister Andris Šķēle. This time around the People’s Party has lost some of its shine because of Šķēle’s own problems. The newest party on the block, New Era, owes its popularity to it being led by one of the few significant figures in Latvia not overtly tainted by corruption—former Bank of Latvia Gov. Einars Repše, whose policies maintained an extremely stable currency over the past 10 years which has provided one of the most significant bases for economic growth in Latvia. He has deliberately picked a list of candidates that avoids anyone who as been linked to scandals or to questionable policies, and has embarked on a wide program of convincing the electorate of the party’s bona fides.
Will this pattern change? The Social Democrats gained representation for the first time at the previous elections, but interestingly they have also portrayed themselves as orthodoxly nationalist. On some issues, such as language policy, they have been if anything more “nationalist” than say the centre party, Latvia’s Way. We are only beginning to see the emergence of anything like a traditional left-right spectrum.
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