12th Saeima Elections – A Few More Weeks

The people of Latvia will be going to the polls on October 4 to elect members of the 12th Saeima, or Parliament. 100 seats are up for grabs, and voters are almost spoilt for choice, as there are no fewer than 13 lists of candidates to choose from. True, most of them have virtually no hope whatever of overcoming the 5% vote barrier that is needed to win any seats at all.

What is certain is that four of the five parties that are in the Saeima right now will retain seats there after the election. The exception is the Reform Party that was set up in advance of the previous election by former President Valdis Zatlers, who dissolved the 10th Saeima after becoming entirely fed up with its venal approach toward life and then established his own party, going on to win more than 20 seats. Alas, the party’s faction split up almost before parliamentary work began, the RP nominated several fairly eccentric government ministers who did nothing so much as to annoy the sectors for which they were responsible, and by the time this year’s election rolled around, the party threw in the towel. Some of its more popular and visible members were scooped up by the governing Unity party, but the RP as such remains present only at the local government level.

Unity will certainly return to Parliament. It won’t get anywhere near the nearly one-half of votes that it received in this spring’s European Parliament Election, but it will not do too shabbily. The others that will return without a problem are the Latvian Alliance of the Green Party and Farmers Union (ZZS), the National Alliance (NA), and what is now known as the Social Democratic Harmony Party – the one that grew out of the old far-left For Human Rights in a United Latvia and has undergone various transmogrifications ever since in an attempt to make nice with people outside of its traditional electorate of non-Latvians who are nostalgic about the Soviet Union. Polls right now suggest that Unity and Harmony are at the top of the rankings, with the ZZS and NA lagging behind. One or the other should win the largest number of votes, but as plenty of people who are polled still say that they are undecided, it would be foolhardy to make a guess as to which one it will be. Certainly people at Unity are hoping that they, the ZZS and the NA will win a majority so that they can put together the new governing coalition and leave Harmony, as always, in opposition.

Among the other parties that are contesting the election, the best chances appear to rest with the rather clumsily named From the Heart for Latvia party that was set up by Latvia’s former National Auditor, Inguna Sudraba. Some polls have suggested that the party may overcome the 5% barrier, one going so far as to suggest a rating of nearly 9%.   Coming from the hard left is the Alliance of Latvians in Russia, which is unapologetically pro-Russian, continues to insist that Russian should be a state language in Latvia, continues to insist that citizenship must automatically be given to everyone, has cosy relations with the terrorists in South-eastern Ukraine and Crimea, etc.   Any votes that it gets will come from the Harmony column, and although the alliance is lagging far behind in the polls, experience shows that people who are planning to vote for the hard left sometimes do not tell pollsters that they are planning to do so. Certainly one of the leading lights of the party, Tatjana Zdanoka, found enough support in the European Parliament election to return to Brussels for another five years in spite of the fact that she basically represents Moscow and the Kremlin there, not Latvia as such.

Several other parties have been set up with big hopes, but, as Texans would put it, “that dog won’t hunt.” Former Prime Minister Einars Repše is hoping that people will forget that he was a fairly eccentric prime minister back in the day – raised his own salary as the first order of business after taking office, conducted a big, supposedly anti-corruption-based witch hunt at government agencies with the result that plenty of those who were sacked were later reinstated by the courts, once said that Latvian cinema should not receive any government funding because he personally could not think of even one Latvian movie that he liked, etc.   The peripatetic former transportation minister and deputy mayor of Rīga Ainars Šlesers, for his part, is hoping that people will have forgotten that he was the poster boy for nepotism at the Transportation Ministry, famously once appointing someone to a job at a state-owned company because the man’s father had once been Šlesers’ chauffeur. He has brought together some true dinosaurs of Latvian politics, including Jānis Jurkāns, who was Latvia’s first post-independence foreign minister, spent some time in hopeless opposition in Parliament, and has been gone from politics for a while now, former Prime Minister (twice) Ivars Godmanis, who lost his seat in the European Parliament when the party from which he had been elected (one of Šlesers’ many political projects during the past decade and more) dissolved, and, God help us, former Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis, who presided over the orgy of spending that drove Latvia straight into the ditch when the global financial crisis erupted in 2007 and 2008.   In both cases, it appears that there is little chance that the parties will win any seats at all.

Beyond that there are the usual more or less loony tunes – a party called Sovereignty, a party called Growth, a party called Freedom: Freedom from Fear, Hatred and Anger, the New Conservative Party, the Latvian Alliance of Regions, and so on. Almost certainly losers one and all.

Inasmuch as there has been mudslinging in this campaign, it has primarily been focused on Unity, which has led the government since March 2009 and may be suffering a bit of road fatigue insofar as the electorate is concerned, and on Sudraba and her party, apparently because she and it are seen as the biggest threat against the established parties. In the former case, some fuss has been raised about the fact that several visible Unity people (as well as the country’s defence minister, who comes from the ZZS) went on holiday this past summer with a man representing a company that earlier this month was chosen by the Cabinet of Ministers in a process that was rather less than transparent to become the lead investor in Latvia’s Citadele Bank. In Sudraba’s case, there have been many claims from others that she is a Trojan horse for Russian interests in Latvia, though little in the way of hard evidence in support of that claim has been produced and presented. Worse for her has been the fact that several members of her own party, including a few who were actually on the party’s candidate list, resigned earlier this year, with some of them going to law enforcement agencies to claim that documents were forged when the party was founded.

The campaign has been a comparatively quiet one, largely because a few years ago Parliament voted to ban television advertising for a month before an election. This has led parties to focus on radio, the Internet, outdoor advertising and direct mail. A few times a week I find party “newsletters” in my mailbox (and toss them into the bin straight away).   Sudraba’s face is on billboards all around Riga, while many mini-buses are decorated with the photogenic image of Mārtiņš Bondars from the Alliance of Regions. Latvian Television and Radio Latvia give all of the candidate lists free airtime as a matter of law, debates are being held on television and radio, but TV ads are gone. That is all for the best.

Foreign policy is traditionally not much of a focus for Latvia’s political parties during election campaigns, and that remains true today. In the face of Russia’s ongoing misbehaviour in the geopolitical world, Unity, the ZZS and the NA all talk in their campaign platforms about strengthening defence, raising the defence budget, developing the Latvian Home Guard, and so on. The Harmony platform says nothing whatsoever about foreign policy at all, which is probably logical seeing as how the party probably would like everyone to forget that it is still an agreement-based partner of Vladimir Putin’s dictator party in Russia and that Harmony has been all over the map in relation to the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine.

To summarise, it is likely that the next Saeima will be rather similar to the present one, with the possible exception of the Sudraba party. For Latvian citizens who live abroad, I would suggest that there are really no more than two sensible choices. Unity has led Latvia out of the economic crisis, and although it is not at all perfect, it is the logical choice for those who wish to continue down the path of economic reform and international co-operation. The National Alliance is rather much too xenophobic for my tastes, but there are those in the electorate who favour its “everything for Latvia” approach to life. The ZZS in my view is disqualified both because it is utterly abnormal for pesticide-using farmers and environmental activists to be in a single party and because the party still has its agreement with the Ventspils Party and its venal boss, Aivars Lembergs. I absolutely cannot and will not recommend a vote for anyone else. A vote cast for a party that does not reach 5% is a vote wasted, because such votes will be redistributed among the parties that have surpassed the barrier, and so a vote for a petty party may mean accidentally voting for Harmony and its pro-Russian interests. Certainly I hope that citizens will make the effort to go to the polls on October 4 or have already voted by mail. I know that in many countries Latvian election precincts are far, far away. In Canada, for instance, precincts can only be open in official diplomatic facilities, which means Ottawa and Toronto, and that does nothing for someone in Alberta or Vancouver. But at the end of the day we are all co-responsible for the future of our country. We live in terribly complex times, and it is of utmost importance to elect a Saeima and, thus, a government that is sensible. This relates not only to Russia’s aggression, but also to the fact that during the first half of next year, Latvia will be the presiding country of the European Union. No time for fools.

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.

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