New coalition is considerable achievement

Despite predictions of a possible victory in the Latvian parliamentary elections by the Russian-leaning Harmony Centre (Saskaņas Centrs), the Oct. 2 election was won by the centre-right Unity (Vienotība), the party of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis.

The pre-election period had witnessed a rather pessimistic and even alarmed atmosphere around Unity, which had trailed in the polls for most of the year. There was concern that particularly among Latvian voters a sense of alienation from the political process could mean that too few would even cast ballots, leaving the gate open for Harmony Centre to be the largest party. In the end, Latvians did turn up to vote.

Another concern had been the very strong publicity campaign run by the “new” party For a Good Latvia! (Par labu Latviju!, or PLL). PLL is in fact the remnant of the two previous dominant parties in the Saeima—the People’s Party (Tautas partija ) and the First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā  partija)—which constituted the core of the previous disgraced government that had presided over Latvia’s economic disaster in 2008 as well as numerous other policy blunders.

PLL ran its campaign highlighting the strong economic growth during the earlier years of its government (don’t mention the crisis!), and berating the Dombrovskis-led government for its harsh economic measures. Its two leaders, Rīga Vice Mayor Ainars Šlesers and former Prime Minister Andris Šķēle, had their portraits plastered everywhere and had considerable resources to try to persuade the public to vote for them again.

In the elections, however, the PLL was only able to win eight seats, and did no better than the nationalist bloc (Visu Latvijai! – Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK) that ran its campaign on a shoestring. Another casualty of the elections was the former Soviet imperialist party For Human Rights in a United Latvia (Par cilvēku tiesībām vienotā Latvijā), whose opposition to Latvia’s independence and pro-European orientation has now run its course. PCTVL received only 1.9 percent of the vote (parties must gain 5 percent to get any Saeima seats).

Getting and not getting a coalition

As with all previous Latvian elections, no party gained a clear majority in its own right, so the process of forming a coalition began immediately. PLL had declared it would be in opposition, but all other parties declared themselves ready to be in a coalition government. Yet the coalition process was complicated in that each of the blocs elected to the Saeima is in fact itself a coalition of different parties or groupings. For example, Unity consists of the older New Era (Jaunais laiks), the breakaway Civic Union (Pilsoniskā savienība) with a very Latvian national-oriented focus, and the Society for a Different Politics (Sabiedrība citai politikai), a professional politician party largely of renegades from the failed People’s Party. And it was these internal divisions that partly determined the coalition outcome.

First, Dombrovskis, who was widely seen to return as prime minister, went for a “grand coalition,” inviting the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība), the nationalist bloc and Harmony Centre to join in government, which would be backed by 92 deputies in the Saeima.

This was a startling move. The nationalist bloc and Harmony Centre are sworn enemies and it would seem to be fantasy for them to sit side by side in a government. Yet Dombrovksis’ move had a logic and he made certain demands that the parties would have to meet. He desired to see if Harmony Centre, with its strong voter base, was willing to join in a coalition, thus not denying a significant part of the electorate a chance to be represented in a government, rather than being asssigned to a perpetual opposition, always seen in ethnic conflict terms. It would also hopefully lessen the continual pressure that comes from Russia to recognise the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia as a legitimate political force.

But Dombrovskis laid down conditions: Harmony Centre had to accept certain positions, including recogniton of the fact of Latvia’s occupation by the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Harmony Cente was insulted by such a demand (its leaders have always fudged the issues of history and often continued the myth of Latvia’s voluntarily joining the Soviet Union), and demanded that talk about coalition proceed without preconditions, which Dombrovskis did not accept. Meanwhile, the Civic Union faction in Unity was offended by the offer to have the Harmony Centre join a coalition, and threatened to leave Unity if this occurred.

In the end, Harmony Centre decided it could not accept Dombrovskis’ position and declined to join the coalition under the stipulated terms.

The nationalist bloc also was willing to join the coalition (it was indeed in the government coalition leading up to the elections), yet it is a party mired in some controversy. The most active part of the bloc is the relatively newly formed All for Latvia! (Visu Latvijai!), a strident nationalist faction that used the Internet and modern media to get its message across. The All for Latvia! faction has been criticised in the West as well as in Russia for its nationalist tendencies and somewhat obscure alleged links to Nazi collaborators. Dombrovskis demanded that it give up its most radical demands (for example, having all secondary schools teach in Latvian only, as opposed to the present situation where up to 40 percent could be taught in the students’ mother tongue). The nationalist bloc agreed that this and other more radical policies would only be pursued if there was agreement in the coalition to do so. But this was not good enough for the small Society for a Different Politics, which dramatically used its veto power to prevent the nationalists from being accepted into the coalition. (An earlier agreement among the three factions of Unity was that any faction would have veto rights over selection of coalition partners.) Yet this act also pointed to potential instability within the ruling party.

These wrangles over the coalition have been variously interpreted. For some, the very move of inviting Harmony Centre to join the coalition was seen as a betrayal of Unity ideals. Others saw it as the best way of handling Latvia’s large minority. And the banning of the nationalist bloc showed even more clearly the tension within Unity. On the other hand, Dombrovksis’ move to invite these two may have in a way cleared the decks, with Harmony Centre in particular being forced to show its true colours when asked crucial questions of its historical undertanding.

In the end, Unity joined with the Union of Greens and Farmers—another party that gained much in the election, and a key party in any coalition arrangements—to form a government, which was ratified by the Saeima on Nov. 3. The soft-spoken but clearly politically astute Dombrovskis was reappointed as prime minister. Having Latvians vote for him, knowing that economic austerity would continue, and sidelining the failed old guard, was a considerable achievement.

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