We may all be in for a tough four years

The past year in Latvian politics was not only eventful, but one that could well be pivotal: an election and a new government (and, surprisingly for Latvia, a continuation of the previous government); a successful NATO defense alliance summit; a continuing high profile for President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga; an economy running almost red hot, and a by now usual lot of scandals, new and continuing.

The central political event—the 9th Saeima election—was unique. No new party arose to challenge the major incumbents, which had been a recurring pattern in previous elections. Moreover, this was the first time the coalition that governed before an election was able to achieve a majority in the election, and the first time that a prime minister holding office before an election was reappointed after that election. The coalition of Tautas partija (People’s Party), Zaļo un Zemnieku Savienība (Union of Greens and Farmers) and Latvijas Pirmā partija (First Party of Latvia, or LPP, now combined with the Latvijas ceļš, or Latvia’s Way) gained a bare majority of 51 spots in the 100-seat Saeima. But the coalition took the small Tēvzemei un brīvībai / LNNK (For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, or TB/LNNK) into the coalition to feather the majority.

The big losers were Jaunais laiks (New Era), strongly supported by Latvian voters in the West, but losing favour in Latvia itself after withdrawing from the coalition in early 2006 and its once popular leader, Einars Repše, becoming widely distrusted.

A big winner was Saskaņas centrs (Harmony Center), which broke away from the previous pro-Russian coalition Par cilvēku tiesībām vienotā Latvijā (For Human Rights in a United Latvia, or PCTVL) and re-badged itself as a party willing to take a constructive place in Latvian politics and government.

How should this surprising election result, and seeming stability at last in political party composition, be understood? Two fundamentally irreconcilable interpretations have quickly come to the fore. One is the claim of stability and a consolidation of effective government. The coalition is popular, has not made any huge mistakes in government, its leading opposition party is in disarray, economically the country is bounding ahead and the government is attending effectively to seemingly insuperable problems of low incomes and poor social conditions. (You can see this line continually supported in the daily newspaper Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze.)

Equally strongly, critics of this government (you can see them clearly in another leading daily newspaper, Diena) see it as a consolidation, certainly, but a consolidation of oligarchy. For these critics, the leading party officials see government as their own private business, particularly Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis, Tautas partija’s behind-the-scenes leader Andris Šķēle and the head-kicking leader of LPP, Ainārs Šlesers.

Certainly, one of the most worrying aspects of the new government is the steady politicisation and insisting on appointing its own (“savējos“) to sensitive positions. Most recently, the main coalition parties tried but failed to appoint Tautas partija member Ringolds Balodis to the position of ombudsman. A spectacularly poorly qualified candidate, this law professor‘s main specialty is law of religion. He seemed totally out of depth and was proven to be so quite starkly in a television debate with the other candidate, Rasma Kārkliņa. Proposed for the position by TB/LNNK, she is a Western Latvian and author of a recent major work on post–Soviet corruption, The System Made Me Do It. But she was anathema to the ruling coalition parties, so in the end no candidate got sufficient votes in the Saeima, leaving the president fuming—once more—over the indecisiveness of the Saeima.

Even worse for its implications was the appointment to the Constitutional Court (Satversmes tiesa) of three candidates who were each severely criticised as inadequate by the Saeima’s own Judicial Affairs Committee. But the same parliamentarians from the coalition parties who expressed this criticism in the end voted for the candidates in the Saeima.

And in a move of extreme cynicism, the coalition appointed once-head LPP guru Jānis Šmits to chair of the Saeima Human Rights and Social Affairs Committee. Šmits, a Lutheran prelate, was notable in 2006 for his extreme homophobia and sustained attack on the Rīga Pride march, and his otherwise overtly authoritarian stance on every social issue. So bad had his reputation become that he was not elected in his own right to the Saeima (his own party supporters crossed out his name in droves), but came into the Saeima with a so-called “soft mandate,“ replacing another LPP member who was appointed a cabinet minister.

Increasing concern over the coalition parties—matched by a total impossibility of any chance of redress—came to a head when a group of minor parties brought a court action claiming illegal overspending by the coalition parties during the election campaign. Groups of people closely allied to the coalition had organised themselves into independent NGOs and produced extensive advertising before the election, praising the incumbents and the economic prosperity they had brought to Latvia. The court came to the not very difficult conclusion that this was a subterfuge to circumvent campaign spending limits, but declined to order the elections invalid.

And another moment of foreboding is the government’s volte face on the need to sign a border agreement with Russia with a unilateral attachment detailing the past history of border agreements, which also includes the loss of the previous Latvian territory of Abrene. Having derailed a previous attempt to sign the border agreement by insisting on such an attachment, the government now insists the signing can go ahead without such a statement, and that the legal continuity of the Latvian state back to pre-World War II days can be guaranteed by other means. This will demand the closest scrutiny.

The present mood of the coalition may spell a difficult time for Latvians abroad. The hostility to Kārkliņš revives a previous history of antagonism to Latvians from the West, most notably in the temporarily lapsed proposal to make a large number of public positions closed to people with dual citizenship.

Moreover, the LPP is increasingly warming to the idea of uniting with the large Saskaņas centrs, which has been downplaying being pro-Russian and now presents itself as a party very much of the centre with a desire to be in government. This too has a background: over the past couple of years Moscow has slowly turned away from its previous great hope—the hard-line pro-Moscow faction in PCTVL with its strident oppositionalism—and has increasingly wanted a party that could be in government. Saskaņas centrs fits this bill perfectly, and the question can be asked whether we are seeing a genuinely moderate new party or a Trojan horse.

Meanwhile, for LPP and its ambitious leader Šlesers an amalgamation would provide an opportunity to become the largest party in the Saeima. The politicians of Saskaņas centrs (and of course PCTVL) are unreservedly hostile to Latvians from abroad playing any part in Latvian affairs. Unless the coalition in its present or expanded form trips up on its own ambitions—a not impossible course of events—we may all be in for a tough four years.

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