Tempo of change quickens in Latvian politics

After the dramatic entry on the political scene of Sandra Kalniete’s and Girts Kristovskis’ new political movement, the Democratic Patriotic Association (Demokrātiski patriotiskā biedrība, or DPB), there has been a period of turmoil within many political parties and within the government.

The embryonic DPB shocked the ruling coalition by gaining a following of more 6 percent in both February and March opinion polls. That’s a higher rating than several of the coalition’s parties, only half of which passed the 5 percent barrier that must be overcome during elections to have any representation in the Saeima (Parliament). It was also more than either of the parties that Kalniete and Kristovskis abandoned—respectively, New Era (Jaunais laiks) and For Fatherland and Freedom (Tēvzemei un Brīvībai, or TB/LNNK), both of which also remained below the 5 percent bar. To add to the display of new forces, the renegades from the People’s Party (Tautas partija)—the well-credentialed Aigars Štokenbergs and former Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks—also passed the 5 percent barrier with their plans to start a new party.

Such numbers may appear small, but Latvian surveys traditionally identify large numbers of people not able to decide among parties, It is the relativities between the parties that count, and here the new forces have made their mark and are beginning to have an effect on the other parties and the government.

First, there is the impact on the parties that Kalniete and Kristovskis abandoned. For Fatherland and Freedom has historically been a very important party in Latvian politics. Its members were at the forefront of citizen resistance to the Soviet regime in the late 1980s. Together with the Latvian National Independence Movement (Latvijas nacionālā neatkarības kustība, or LNNK), with which they have since amalgamated, they were the hardline nationalists pushing for restrictions on citizenship and a program of de-Sovietisation and standing for national values in politics. These stances were popular enough in the late 1980s and 1990s but lately the party has faced a serious decline in popularity. Its last great gain was in the European Parliament elections of 2005 when it secured the most votes and captured four out of Latvia’s eight deputies. Now three of those deputies, including Kristovskis, have left the party.

Several problems have beset TB/LNNK. It is seen as a somewhat old-fashioned party stressing nationalist issues that have either been superseded by more economic and environmental issues, or have been appropriated by several other centre-right parties, including Jaunais laiks. Moreover, the very name of the new party that Kalniete and Kristovskis are creating—the Democratic Patriotic Association—indicates it is appealing precisely to the voters who could support TB/LNNK. Another growing problem is that TB/LNNK was in the unpopular coalition government headed by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis, who was forced to resign in December, and is still in the current government. Despite the efforts of its chair, economist and MEP Roberts Zīle, to make over the party as a modern liberal-conservative party, it could be headed for oblivion.

If the TB/LNNK has suffered from being in the government, then paradoxically New Era (the party Kalniete left) has suffered from several times having walked out of coalitions and from not being in the current government. Its highly idiosyncratic founding leader Einars Repše has turned off many of the party’s supporters, and the ineffectual next leader Krišjānis Kariņš was not able to hold the party together. Despite the defection of Kalniete, three other deputies and several regional leaders, the party has insisted it is still strong and now more united. During its recent congress New Era installed one of its most competent members, Solvita Āboltiņa, as leader. But there also have been talks of New Era making a rapprochement with the People’s Party and perhaps even ultimarly merging.

The People’s Party and New Era have had a troubled relationship. Many of their policies are similar. New Era has always strongly campaigned on an anti-corruption platform. But the People’s Party and its founder, Andris Šķēle, have been widely condemned for oligarchic and corrupt practices, and have a running battle with government auditors and various watchdogs, which they are also accused of trying to dismiss or sideline. And the Štokenbergs-Pabriks force, campaigning heavily on improving the lot of pensioners, has clearly harmed the People’s Party, which gained a barely sufficient 5.3 percent in the March opinion poll.

The basic problem is that there are now too many parties that vie for a very similar centre-right slice of the electorate: New Era, the People’s Party, TB/LNNK, the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība), and now the Kalniete-Kristovskis DPB and the Štokenbergs-Pabriks party. All of these cannot survive, and the greatest threat is that this historically all-too-familiar fragmentation of the centre-right could pave the way for the increased influence of the pro-Moscow Harmony Centre (Saskaņas Centrs), which at the moment leads the Latvian polls with a consistent 10-12 percent.

Meanwhile, government has not stopped, but at least some winds of change are being felt. We mention just three problems that may soon have some resolution.

First, late last year government forces threatened to not renew the appointment of Jānis Kažociņš, director of the main security body, the Constitution Protection Bureau (Satversmes Aizsardzības birojs). Kažociņš is a British-born Latvian unpopular with ruling circles, seemingly because he does actually catch spies. Yet this issue has decidely quietened down. No other candidates have been mentioned by name, and it could be that he does hold his position. If not, the umbrellas could well be back on the streets.

Second, the trade unions have been running a much-publicised initiative campaign, seeking signatures to compel the Saeima to adopt constitutional amendments that would give the electorate the power to initiate termination of the parliament. Currently the constitution allows only the president to propose terminating the Saeima, leading to a referendum. While the government loudly condemns the action, the campaign has highlightted how unpopular the Saeima is. Such unpopularity was heightened by a seemingly trivial but in fact quite vicious move: the government adopted new regulations for gathering such signatures, including having one’s identity notarised, meaning the process of collecting signatures is more time-consuming and more expensive.

Third, while some discomfort is seen in the Saeima and government on such instances as above, other areas seem to be politics-as-business as normal. Most critically for the long term, the government late last year approved a proposal to diversify energy supply in Latvia by building a new coal-biomass as well as a gas power station. Now, the government has reversed its decision and will no longer propose a coal-biomass power station, favouring solely the gas power station. The decision thus deepens Latvia’s dependence upon Russia’s Gazprom, despite every urging from the European Union and others to diversify.

Never was there a more timely moment for new political movements, and never has the road for them to climb been more difficult.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *