Presidential games reveal political shortcomings

While anything written here on the Latvian presidential selection shenanigans may be rendered instantly obsolete by the next unpredictable turn of events, it is nevertheless worthwhile to reflect on the process for what it has revealed about appalling shortcomings in many areas in Latvia’s politics, not the presidential election process alone.

Latvia’s constitution stipulates a president has to be elected every four years by a majority of the Saeima (the Latvian parliament), rather than by popular vote. But the constitution specifies no particular details for this electoral process. Unlike virtually every other presidential system, candidates could be nominated by members of the Saeima at any time during the process. When Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was elected for her first term in 1999, she had not been a candidate at all in the first few rounds of voting. When no candidate nominated by any party could get near the required 51 votes of the Saeima, Vīķe-Freiberga at the final hour emerged as a “neutral” candidate. In order to obtain greater transparency, Vīķe-Freiberga herself this year sought clarification of the process, arguing that the public has a right to know potential candidates. The process has now been amended to the extent that candidates cannot be nominated on the day of their election, but as we have seen in recent weeks the process otherwise has remained completely unreformed.

A brief chronology is in order.

At the Saeima elections in October 2006 only one party named its potential presidential candidate. New Era (Jaunais laiks) nominated Sandra Kalniete, the well-known foreign relations specialist and one-time European Union commissioner. However, there was much speculation that, as in 1999, it would be hard for any candidate nominated by a party to gain a majority. Against this, the victory by the ruling coalition in the 2006 election paved the way precisely for a party candidate to be successful.

With Vīķe-Freiberga’s term due to end in July, speculation grew over the first months of this year. Several people were suggested as presidential candidates, but many declined. Other political matters also accentuated the importance of the president, in particular the president’s shock halt in March of amendments to two security laws, forcing the issue to go to a referendum. The coalition parties hastily rescinded the amendment, among calls for their resignation. The belated support for Estonia against Russia also weakened the coalition’s standing.

In mid-May the coalition’s People’s Party (Tautas partija) nominated Māris Riekstiņš, who heads the prime minister’s office. He is an otherwise a well-credentialed political figure, but clearly in this context is a party figure. Another coalition party, the First Party of Latvia / Latvia’s Way (Latvijas Pirmā partija/Latvijas ceļš) nominated the relatively lightweight minister Karīna Pētersone. The Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība) sought a number of possible candidates, including Egīls Levits, a European Court of Human Rights judge. However, much commentary still argued that no party-nominated candidate could hope to get a majority.

On May 23, in a complete reversal, the coalition announced it would after all promote a neutral candidate, Latvia’s leading orthopaedic surgeon Valdis Zatlers, a non-party figure but one with little political experience. The parties praised Zatlers‘ part in reforming the Latvian medical system—and his neutrality. It came as a complete surprise to all including, it seems, the other candidates. A pissed-off Pētersone called a halt to her seemingly good-faith campaigning and walked out on the process in disgust at this deal done behind her back.

Immediately some comments were raised about Zatlers’ statements that he had received, but never demanded, “envelope money,” the gifts of payments by patients that had caused so much scandal in Latvia in previous years. Despite this, Zatlers was heavily promoted as a neutral candidate, and now his election to the president seems to be a fait accompli—and a coup for the coalition.

Yet on May 24 an equal bombshell came from a totally unexpected source. Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs) nominated highly-respected former Constitutional Court Judge Aivars Endziņš. His nomination received a rapturous welcome from the public as measured in online forums and in much of the press. In a television show featuring all three candidates, both Endziņš and Kalniete easily outscored Zatlers in a viewers’ poll.

And then, in another surprise, Kalniete withdrew her candidature in favour of Endziņš. Having no hope of gaining the position from her base in Jaunais laiks, Kalniete now has laid the grounds for a two-way contest, with the overwhelming interest emerging in how many coalition parliamentarians may defect to the more publicly popular candidate. Some members of For Fatherland and Freedom / LNNK (Tēvzemei un brīvībai / LNNK) seem to be wavering. The nomination has also brought Harmony Centre into renewed political prominence. Seen by many as a tactical Moscow front and a replacement for the old Soviet-style For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL), Harmony Centre has tried hard to prove its political reasonableness and to be seen as future genuine government coalition partner. Interestingly, Harmony Centre had previously become very chummy with some coalition parties, but Endziņš has been known to criticise the coalition in the past. The leading coalition parties see him as anathema to their interests.

Meanwhile, the issue of envelope money will not go away for Zatlers. This form of low-level but ubiquitous corruption was characterstic of the Soviet era, when to get any degree of personal attention—or even sometimes any access at all to services that should have been there for any citizen—it was necessary to give the doctor or whomever a gift. Interestingly, in Soviet times this was usually not money. What, after all, could you buy with roubles? Western goods, or luxuries, or hard to obtain local products (a pair of panty-hose, western alcohol or cigarettes), or an invitation to an exclusive retreat were among the range of what could usefully guarantee a service. In present-day Latvia, as befits a would-be capitalist system, the “gifts” are overwhelmingly money. A curiosity of the Latvian taxation law—or rather a deliberately placed loophole—is that it is unclear to what extent such payments are illegal if given voluntarily, and a many-sided brawl is now ensuing over the taxation laws and the ethics of such payments. Even the taxation office has weighed into the argument. The more intense this brawl, the worse for Zatlers.

The Saeima will select a president—or not—on May 31. If the coalition is able to get its way and elect Zatlers, we will have a deeply unpopular and potentially divisive president on possibly a knife-edge majority, but a rich triumph for the coalition in getting its man into the position. If against all previous expectations a figure like Endziņš is elected, he will very likely continue the presidential style of Vīķe-Freiberga, and this will be a crushing setback for the coalition. However, we must warn that other unpredictable outcomes are also still possible.

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