What’s so new about New Era?

Undoubtedly the greatest talking point of the forthcoming Saeima (parliament) elections on Oct. 5 is the appearance of a completely new political party, New Era (Jaunais laiks), which had stormed to first place in pre-election polling. It is not surprising to see previously nonexistent parties rapidly come to prominence and do very well in Latvian elections, but New Era’s rise does have some unusual features. How much headway can it make?

The last Saeima election in 1999 produced the following result in the 100-seat parliament: People’s Party (Tautas partija), 24 seats; Latvia’s Way (Latvijas ceļš), 21; For Fatherland and Freedom/Latvian National Independence Movement (TB/LNNK), 17; National Harmony Party (now For Human Rights in a United Latvia, or Par cilvēka tiesībām vienotā Latvijā), 16; Latvian Social Democratic Labour Party, 14; and New Party (Jaunā partija), 8.

New Era sees itself as being able to compete directly with the centre-right People’s Party, the centrist Latvia’s Way and the New Party (which has fractured and is not likely to be reelected), as well as with the nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom coalition. It is also not without hope of attracting some social democrat votes. Each of these parties has declined in popularity in much recent polling.

Of all the unusual features of New Era’s rise, perhaps most startling of all was party’s founder and leader Einars Repše saying that he wishes to have a majority in his own right in the new Saeima. This would be an unprecedented outcome, as all Latvian governments have always been coalitions. While certainly leading in the polls at the moment, it is still only attracting around 20 percent of support, a substantial base, but not near a majority in the 100-seat Saeima.

As with most Latvian political parties, it is difficult to see policies of New Era differing widely from the other parties, except in one sphere—its promise of honesty and of being accountable for its decisions.

Otherwise, New Era is broadly centre-right in its orientation, much the same as the People’s Party and to some extent Latvia’s Way. And most of its policies—which are always hard to work out in the Latvian context—broadly represent what is the dominant orientation anyway in Latvian politics: pro-Europe and NATO; for economic expansion and steady but controlled privatisation; and pro-Latvian in citizenship and language issues but mindful of European imperatives in these areas.

But as with so many other parties, it is people rather than politics that are noticed, and New Era is essentially the creation of its prominent leader, Einars Repše. Repše was one of the diligent workers for Latvian independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at that time as part of the People’s Front and For Fatherland and Freedom.

However, he did not serve long as a politician, being given instead the crucial position of head of the Bank of Latvia. While not an economist (like many of Latvia’s independence leaders he was a physics and mathematics graduate), he made a long-term impact in this position. He supervised the change from the old Soviet rouble to the transitional Latvian rouble (often call repsīši), which soaked up the booming inflation in the immediate post-independence period, until being replaced by the reintroduced lats. This currency, despite many predictions to the contrary, has proven to be highly stable.

When financial difficulties arose, Repše refused to take the way out that was taken so often by Russia and other former Soviet countries—printing money—thus making himself very unpopular with a number of governments struggling to make ends meet. This policy maintained the currency and pleased Europe and the International Monetary Fund, but also led to many problems. The cost of credit hurt struggling new businesses and the high exchange rate also was criticised. A number of spectacular bank crashes hit Latvia in the mid 1990s, as they did most other Eastern European countries, though the Bank of Latvia always claimed supervision by a central bank could only go so far.

This history has meant that while probably not widely loved, Repše is seen as a major figure largely untouched by scandal and corruption, and willing to make and stand by difficult decisions that provided part of the basis for Latvian’s economic recovery. He has also carefully chosen his team, few of whom are widely known politically, but who are mostly in responsible managerial or economic positions.

However, while ability to control the economy is a proud part of New Era’s claims, it is not what has gained it most attention. The party has been trying to persuade voters that it truly is a party that will be responsible to the voters and that will work for the national interest. The party tried to demonstrate this in a quite unprecedented and controversial way: the party’s candidates held a special church service, presided over by some of Latvia’s leading clergy, at which they solemnly declared they would work in the interests of the nation. In a country where politicians are seen as essentially self-interested, such a move drew equal amounts of admiration and cynicism, with other parties claiming this was a totally illegitimate use of the church to further political ends, and only signaled the party’s naivety.

New Era also continues the populist tradition of newly formed parties, arguing that the national interest has been betrayed by self-interested decision-making by incumbent politicians. The People’s Party in 1999 made a similar pitch. Yet The People’s Party, like many others that have been part of governing coalitions, is now suffering a backlash.

This is an abiding feature of Latvian and indeed Eastern European politics. Parties that have dominated in a parliament or government but are unable to adequately address all the myriad problems are in danger in subsequent elections. Latvia’s Way, which has formed part of every post-independence government, is also suffering a downturn in support, as is the nationalist For Fatherland & Freedom group.

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