Oh Where, Oh Where Can My President Be?

Here we are again. It’s time for Latvia’s Parliament, the Saeima, to elect a president for the country. How time flies! It scarcely seems possible that four years have already passed since the incumbent, Andris Bērziņš, was elected. The person who is elected this time, probably in early June, will be Latvia’s fifth president since the restoration of the country’s independence and eighth or ninth in all of Latvia’s history (the last pre-war president, Kārlis Ulmanis, was not elected to the office, he grabbed it himself).

As I write this text three or four weeks before the actual election, I must say that I have no idea who will actually end up being chosen.  Latvia’s political parties, as is always their wont, are playing political games with the issue. The Unity party controls the prime minister’s office, the National Alliance (NA) has the chair of Speaker of Parliament, so the presidency should go to the Latvian Alliance of the Green Party and Farmers Union (ZZS), which is the third party in the governing coalition, for instance.  Apparently the characteristics and talents of the president are of secondary importance here. Political balance is the key.

I will first say that this is nothing new. Latvia’s first post-occupation president, Guntis Ulmanis, largely became president because of his surname (his grandfather was Kārlis Ulmanis’ brother) – tradition, don’t you know? Also in the running, incidentally, was Gunārs Meierovics, whose grandfather was pre-war Latvia’s legendary foreign minister, Zigfrīds.  The former surname beat out the latter. Mr Ulmanis, for understandable reasons, was not called Ulmanis during the Soviet occupation. He changed his surname after the collapse of the USSR and served two three-year terms in office.

Latvia’s next president, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, was elected only after MPs conducted five rounds of voting, with no one winning the requisite 51 votes (of 100). She did not appear entirely out of the blue, a group of intellectuals had been touting her potential candidacy for some time before, but it was still something of a surprise. Mrs Vīķe-Freiberga spent most of her life in Canada and returned to Latvia only a year or so before the election. Her election was due in large part to the inability of squabbling parties in Parliament to elect anyone who was a member of one of them.

President Vīķe-Freiberga was first to serve a four-year term, the law having been amended to extend the term for one year. She was so popular that during the parliamentary election that preceded her re-election, most parties swore up and down that they would support her and only her.  In the event, she ran unopposed and received 88 votes, with only six MPs voting against her.

Mrs Vīķe-Freiberga’s second term came to an end at a time when Latvia’s venal political system was at pretty much the height of its venality. A key showdown between the president and the Cabinet of Ministers occurred when the latter voted to amend Latvia’s national security laws to allow anyone vouched for by a member of Parliament to gain access to state secrets. The president blocked the law, which was clearly designed in support of some of the so-called “oligarchs” who were of great influence in politics at that time, and in a resulting national referendum, the overwhelming majority of residents voted against the amendments. The referendum did not achieve the necessary proportion of the electorate to count, but it did not matter, because Parliament had quietly reversed itself on the matter anyway.

The aforementioned venality was seen very clearly when the Cabinet of Ministers, led by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis (he would be the one who proclaimed “seven years of abundance” not very long before the Latvian economy crashed completely), dilly-dallied over a number of possible presidential candidates before suddenly coming up with Valdis Zatlers. It has gone down in political legend that agreement on this candidate was reached by a very small group of politicos at the Rīga zoo. Valdis Zatlers was a surgeon with no political experience whatsoever, but that made no difference to those who wanted to elect him. Neither was it of any importance to them that like most doctors in post-Soviet Latvia, Dr Zatlers commonly took under-the-counter payments from his patients and, crucially, did not declare this income.  In the event, he ended up paying a small fine after having been elected, but this blatant ignoring of an issue which, I would submit, would pretty much disqualify a candidate for the top office in the land in most civilised countries, was par for the course here.

President Zatlers served only one term in office. Readers may remember that during his term, politicians in Parliament and the Cabinet were starting to get up to their old tricks once again. One outrageous example was a vote in the Saeima to soften the law on money laundering, and with retroactive effect, thus almost certainly kowtowing to the scandalous mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, who was (and is) being tried in court for a variety of sins including, no points for guessing – money laundering.  Eventually Dr Zatlers ran out of patience and invoked a constitutional procedure to dissolve Parliament and call a fresh election. The Constitution requires a referendum on the matter, and in this particular case there is no quorum of the electorate. The president signed the order on dissolution on May 28, 2011, and on July 23, 650,518 people voted in support of the order, while only 37,289 voted against it. A more ringing rejection of a class of politicians is difficult to imagine.

The problem for Dr Zatlers was that between May 28 and July 23, there was a presidential election in Parliament. Though he had been expected to win handily, the fact that his electorate was made up of the same people whom he was kicking out of office meant that there was room for someone else. What basically happened was that Andris Bērziņš went to his ZZS faction and said “What the heck, I’ll give it a shot.” On June 2, he was elected.

President Bērziņš announced several weeks ago that he would not be seeking a second term in office. His presidency has not been without controversy. The man is no great orator, and he is prone to making occasionally puzzling statements such as his remark at one point that no one had adequately explained to him why Latvia should have to take on the expense of serving as the presiding country of the European Union, as it is doing right now. Apparently the president needed different foreign policy advisors, because the presidency is a rotating thing that comes and goes automatically for all EU member states.

Once that announcement was made, the jockeying began. First out of the blocks was the Latvian Alliance of Regions (NRA), which is a small party in opposition in the Saeima, and came up with Mārtiņš Bondars, who among other things once served as chief of staff to President Vīķe-Freiberga. Another small opposition party, the clumsily named From the Heart for Latvia (NSL) came up with Gunārs Kūtris, a former chief justice of the Latvian Constitutional Court. Small opposition party, small opposition party, no chance, no chance.

The National Alliance has said that its preferred candidate is Egīls Levits, currently a justice on the European Court of Justice. The governing Unity party has had a number of potential candidates. Party chairwoman and former Speaker Solvita Āboltiņa has had ambitions for the job, though her reputation was sullied a bit during last year’s parliamentary election, when she fell short of election and got a seat in Parliament only after one of the candidates who beat her on the list suddenly, and without much explanation, just gave the seat up. One wing of Unity would like to see European Parliament member Sandra Kalniete in the job, and she has said that she would be willing to serve. The other wing of Unity will have none of that and at one time said that it would choose another member of the EP, Artis Pabriks.

That, however, was only until the ZZS came up with its candidate.  Here, again, we have a party of various constituent parts, and, as I have written in the past, it seems abnormal on a prima facie basis that environmental activists and pesticide-using farmers are in a single party. Of some importance in this case has been the aforementioned Aivars Lembergs, whose For Latvia and Ventspils party is also a part of the ZZS.  He has been known in recent times for fairly ridiculous statements about NATO such as the idea that NATO troops are actually an occupant force comparable to the Soviet military during the occupation. This initially suggested that the ZZS could not propose Defence Minister Raimonds Vējonis, who slapped the Ventspils mayor down loudly and firmly when he made those statements.

In the event though, the party did nominate Mr Vējonis, and Unity announced that it would support him, too. Unity and the ZZS have a total of 44 votes in Parliament, seven short of the 51 that are needed. The NA has said that it will continue to insist on Mr Levits.  The largest opposition party, Harmony, which is best known for being good buddies with the ruling United Russia party in our neighbouring country, as well as for being all wishy-washy about Russia’s grand military adventure in Ukraine, has said that it will nominate MP Sergejs Dolgopolovs. The NRA is sticking to Mr Bondars. Mr Kūtris from NSL has said that this is all a matter of tactics, and perhaps his candidacy will not be put forward officially.

All of this almost certainly means that the Saeima will not elect a president in the first round of voting. One key element in this is that the vote will be secret. This is another example of the vast gap that exists between Latvia’s political class and the rest of the population. In poll after poll, vast majorities of the country’s residents have called for an open election.  Yes, this would require a constitutional amendment, but constitutional amendments are not impossible. This is just another case in which politicos are putting their own “interests” ahead of everybody else’s. For our purposes, however, it simply means that there can be all kinds of surprises in the vote.

I must say that all of these political games are wearying, but also rather dangerous. The geopolitical situation in this part of the world right now is one in which it would be more than outrageous to elect to the presidency a neophyte who must spend the first six months looking for the bathroom key, so to speak. President Zatlers was just such a neophyte, and a few months after his election, in an interview, he came up with the statement “I am … yes, who am I?”. This example of existential angst became so well-known that this year the former president used the statement as the title of his memoir.

Completely lost in all of this political manoeuvring, therefore, is the question of what kind of person the next president will be. Will he or she be firm in relations with Parliament? Does he or she have a command of international politics? What does he or she think about relations with Russia? What are his or her views on the conflict in Ukraine? What about the European Union?  What about NATO?  Does he or she speak English, which today is pretty much a prerequisite for participation in international affairs?  When US President Barack Obama or his successor meets with the new Latvian president, with whom will he or she be meeting? And above all, what is the president’s experience?  Guntis Ulmanis ran a utility company before becoming president.  Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was a celebrated psychologist. As noted, Valdis Zatlers was a doctor. Andris Bērziņš was a banker (and, as such, managed to ensure that he has the highest retirement pension in the land – another thing that one would imagine would not fly in many other countries).

To my mind, there are several potential candidates who tick all of the aforementioned boxes, first and foremost Mrs Kalniete. She is a former Latvian foreign minister, a former ambassadress to France, a former ambassadress to the United Nations, a former ambassadress to UNESCO, a former MP, and last year she was handily re-elected to a second term in the European Parliament. It would be hard to find someone more experienced and qualified. Not that that makes any difference in the halls of Parliament. Mrs Kalniete does not even have the support of all MPs from her own party.

To summarise: next month someone is going to be elected President of the Republic of Latvia. I cannot say who that will be. No one can. Is this a way to elect the country’s top official?  One might note that in some senses it is less onerous than what is going on in the United States, with literally dozens of Republican candidates all in a race to the bottom in terms of who can best serve the bigoted “base.” True, to my mind that almost certainly means that the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton, and that will not be a bad thing. But in Latvia’s case, as I noted, at a time when Russia is increasingly aggressive and increasingly imperialistic, politicians would do a very bad thing by electing just anyone at all.

Kārlis Streips was born in Chicago, studied journalism at the University of North Illinois and University of Maryland. He moved to Latvia in 1991 where he has worked as a TV and radio journalist. He also works as a translator and lecturer at the University of Latvia.

5 thoughts on “Oh Where, Oh Where Can My President Be?”_en

  1. This is really an excellent article. I appreciate the summary of each of the presidencies and some of the top issues/controversies associated with them. Just yesterday I heard someone in Riga speak about the possibility of Juris Rubenis being an option, if vote after vote fails, as happened when Vike-Freiberga was elected. I wonder what other names are being thrown about. Again, Karlis, good article!

  2. To quote the author “True, to my mind that almost certainly means that the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton, and that will not be a bad thing.” That to me calls into question the whole of his essay. Spoken like a true party machine Chicagoan.

  3. Huh ??? Again quoting the author: “….with literally dozens of Republican candidates all in a race to the bottom in terms of who can best serve the bigoted “base.”
    I’m sure Mr. Streips would no doubt support opening the eastern border of Latvia to an endless stream of illegal Russian immigration, with full voting rights of course… since being against that would label him as a “bigot”.
    It appears that his definition of “bigot” is anyone who values the founding principles of a free and independent nation (i.e. the Constitution), which all elected officials in America swear to protect and defend.
    Spoken like a true Chicago machine hack.

  4. Thank you, Charles. Juris and Maris, the Republican “base” is bigoted. It is anti-gay, which is bigotry. It is anti-African American (as witnessed by endless attempts in Republican-run states to tighten up voting laws, always clearly aimed at minorities, and particularly African American people). That is bigotry. Telling a woman that she has no control over her own body is bigotry. This has nothing to do with Russians, immigrants or anything else. And given that whoever ends up becoming the Republican nominee is going to have a hell of a time convincing the population at large that he didn’t mean any of the things that he said during the primaries (for instance, that birthright citizenship should be abandoned), so the next President is going to be whoever ends up becoming the Democratic nominee, and that seems likely to be Hillary Clinton, though my rascally liberal soul would actually prefer Senator Sanders from the People’s Republic of Vermont. That has nothing to do with the fact that I am from Chicago, and I am most certainly not a hack. Thank you for the discussion, but you are both wrong.

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