Latvia’s result in the referendum about joining the European Union, with 67 percent of a strong turnout voting “yes,” delighted the government and EU supporters.
For many it was also a great relief, as the curiously lacklustre pro-EU campaign seemed to be in serious trouble in the months before the referendum. A stronger campaign in the last weeks, the virtually unanimous editorialising in favour by media, and relentless European advice to vote “yes” had their payoff.
Yet the pressure may not have been the most important factor. The clincher may have been the increasing understanding by the ordinary voter that the “no” case was becoming incoherent, and the consequences too potentially dangerous. For those championing the view that common sense would prevail, their trust in the Latvian citizen seems to have been vindicated.
The weeks since the referendum have seen little afterglow of success. The EU has engaged again in a long-standing debate over its constitution, and the new candidate countries are needing to battle hard to ensure they don’t ecome sidelined. Most importantly, they oppose the proposal that the European Commission have rotating membership for the smaller countries. At the moment all members have one commissioner, and the new members want this to continue for them. And there is wrangling over how many seats each will hold in the European Parliament.
After offering their congratulations on the referendum, EU representatives have also been keen to remind Latvia, among others, of the need to live up to the varying demands for accession by May 1 (when they will be formally admitted to the EU), including reform of administrative and particularly judicial arrangements.
And predictably, Russia still hopes to put a spoke in Latvia’s accession to the EU, unless its demands for the rights of Russian speakers and non-citizens are satisfied.
And the pleasure and pride that surrounded Latvia’s “yes” vote in the referendum has been shortlived for other, more internal, political reasons.
Those outside Latvia will have noticed that since the referendum there has been a period of increasing political instability in the coalition government, for reasons that do not seem at all clear. Those in Latvia will remember that this latest fight in the coalition was ignited precisely on the night of the referendum, when the leader of the Latvia First Party, Ēriks Jēkabsons, stole the limelight by warning of impending dictatorship and claiming that the coalition was finished unless Prime Minister Einars Repše stepped down. Three hours later Jēkabsons said the coalition would continue! Commentators were confused by this bombshell, which cut across the increasing euphoria of the positive referendum result.
Rifts in the coalition are not news. But the timing and subsequent history of this latest skirmish have been unusual to say the least.
Repše called his opponents’ bluff, and the subsequent weeks have seen an extraordinary backdown by his coalition partners. Most amazingly, those who were dissatisfied with Repše’s leadership were not prepared to put the matter to a vote of the coalition or the Saeima, but argued that Repše himself should realise he is disliked and should stand down of his own accord! (The reader is asked to imagine how many politicians they know who would indeed step down if so politely asked.)
It is not difficult to find reasons for the dislike of Repše. While a popular figure among Latvian voters, both in Latvia and the west, Repše has proven himself extremely rigid in his dealings with his coalition partners, demanding complete loyalty to decided policy but giving his coalition partners little say in the direction of that policy.
Keep in mind that in the 2002 election campaign Repše and his New Era party believed they could achieve what had never been achieved in Latvia before: an absolute majority in the Saeima. Falling short of that, Repše has continued to wield power as if such a majority had been achieved, with the coalition partners feeling increasingly squeezed.
Repše has continued to be popular among voters by claiming that he has to be given the powers to effectively solve national problems, particularly those of corruption and law and order, and to make his government and economy run in as businesslike a way as he was able to do in his former job as chief of the Bank of Latvia.
Yet this promise of being an effective reformer is increasingly becoming the image of an authoritarian leader with a populist appeal, and most seriously he does not seem to be delivering the goods. A number of poor or puzzling policy moves have characterised his first year of office.
Repše’s arbitrariness seems to be increasing, but his coalition partners are unable to act. It appears that the threat of an early Saeima election, however theoretical, did affect the scared rabbits among his coalition partners to back down on their criticisms. They well understand that Repše is so dominant in public perceptions—and the coalition parties have trouble gaining any recognition at all—that the prime minister might come closer to his desired majority next time around, at the expense of the coalition.
Having joined Europe may indeed have been a triumph for common sense, but there is little common sense being displayed by Latvia’s politicians around their own village pump.
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