Zatlers makes his political mark, but not without controversy

On July 23, by a 94 percent majority, Latvian voters as expected supported the referendum instigated by ex-President Valdis Zatlers to dismiss the Saeima. They will return to the polls on Sept. 17 to elect a new parliament.

This ended a truly unprecedented series of political events, and signalled the way for at least one new political force to take the stage in Latvian politics—Zatlers himself and his now many supporters.

On the same day as the referendum, Zatlers officially founded his party. Curiously, by many commentators’ estimation, he put his own persona in the party title: the Zatlers Reform Party (Zatlera Reformu partija, or ZRP). Such a person-driven approach seeks to capitalise on his popularity in dismissing the Saeima, which has rocketed Zatlers’ personal approval to 79 percent—an unusual rating for any Latvian politician.

As the referendum dust settles and Zatlers’ political course becomes clearer, two radically different interpretations are put on his motivation to dismiss the Saeima. The first takes Zatlers at his word that he wanted basically to rid the Saeima of the influence of oligarchs who control several political parties and who had instigated a series of votes against the national interest, or who had in other ways resisted necessary policy implementation. The trigger for Zatlers’ move was the Saeima’s decision not to allow the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs) to search the home of “bulldozer” MP Ainārs Šlesers. The concern of Zatlers had been to restore a measure of democracy to the working of the Saeima. The leading party, Unity (Vienotība), sharing such sentiments, in fact then invited Zatlers to join it, but he declined in favour of founding his own.

The second interpretation is far less favourable. When he triggered the referendum on May 28 by recommending the Saeima dismissal, Zatlers was faced with the likelihood that he would not be elected by the parliament to a second term. As it turned out, the Saeima appointed the financier Andris Berziņš to the presidency. The dismissal of the Saeima thus is viewed more as an act of revenge. And Zatlers further declined to join Unity as it had stood staunchly against any idea of a coalition with the second-largest party in the Saeima, the Moscow-leaning Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs). Zatlers was looking for his own political advantage, being willing to go into coalition with anyone to secure his own power.

Debate over Zatlers’ motives will continue, but meanwhile his popularity with the electorate has not diminished. In the first party ratings since its founding, ZRP ranked first with Harmony Centre, both favoured by 17.5 perent of the electorate. It seems that Zatlers had taken voters away from all parties, even marginally from Harmony Centre. Unity—the largest party in the dismissed Saeima—slumped to 8.7 percent, while the pivotal Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un zemnieku savienību) declined to 8.1 percent. The Union of Greens and Farmers is very much associated with oligarch and Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs. Also in decline, though less sharply, was the National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība), claiming 6.3 percent support.

No other party came near to the 5 percent barrier required to sit in the Saeima. The great loser appears to be the oligarch Šlesers. His First Party of Latvia/Latvian Way (Latvijas Pirmā partija/Latvijas Ceļš) had managed to get into the Saeima on previous occasions after blitz advertising campaigns, but support for the party has dropped to just 1.7 percent.

On these figures, any kind of coalition is a possibility, either including or excluding Harmony Centre. Yet with more than a month to the elections, we may expect volatility as much as stability in predictions, as the heat is turned on Zatlers and his relative lack of political experience, and the very mixed bag of supporters who have flocked to his flag. An uncomfortable feeling comes precisely from the populist nature of his campaign so far, and the relative lack of substance in policy terms he has announced. While we are used to party platforms in Latvia often being very similar—so voters’ decisions revolve around personalities—the search for power seems to override careful policy considerations, making ZRP perhaps just one more party devised for an individual leader, rather than being a genuine party representing stable interests.

However, a further sense of discomfort comes from Zatlers’ own background. Four years ago, he was an apolitical surgeon who was installed as president by the same oligarchs he now berates. Also in the background is his self-admitted taking of “envelopes” (bribes) as a surgeon, as is the common practice in most post-Soviet countries. This makes his claims to be against oligarchy or corruption ring somewhat hollow.

Further, Zatlers’ battle cry to get rid of oligarchs has taken on a somewhat bizarre life of its own, with a number of popular events including a “festival for buried oligarchs” (Oligarhu kapu svētki) arousing hilarity.

Yet the real problems facing Latvia are not restricted to the activities of oligarchs, however odious. The painful road back to economic health in Latvia is hurting many. The country is experiencing depopulation as workers head abroad, and many small and medium enterprises are in trouble. The desire to repay loans to the International Monetary Fund and other lenders has led the government to slash wages and increase taxes.

Latvia now enjoys a two-track economy. One part, largely concerned with transit and finance, is experiencing a boom, but the rest of the economy depressed. Yet the parties struggle to devise any policies to address these issues. Unity’s insistence on repaying the debts, maintaining the value of the lat and tightening belts is being increasingly criticised as undermining any growth potential. And corruption is still widespread in administration, while the shadow (non-tax paying) economy remains strong.

Not to be outdone, Hamony Centre’s potential prime minister candidate, Nils Ušakovs, has proposed a radical suggestion: Political parties should put aside all issues to do with nationality and ethnicity—citizenship, official state language, language in schools, etc.—for a period of three years so that they can concentrate on solving the nation’s serious economic issues. Directed clearly at nationalist attempts to mobilise around issues such as having Latvian be the only language of instruction in schools, Ušakovs’ approach may yet strike a chord among voters, though it is unlikely to be accepted by other parties, whose own economic credentials are often weak and for which national issues may sometimes be a useful pretext to mobilise support.

Voters will be faced with more choice in these elections, but the substance of this choice will still be an open question as this intriguing battle intensifies.

3 thoughts on “Zatlers makes his political mark, but not without controversy

  1. Thank you for an excellent analysis. The empowering feeling of voting out the Saeima is starting to be outweighed by a sense of the danger Latvia faces if the reformers can’t put together an effective governing coalition. If Vienotība wasn’t able to keep its coalition together (as in the KNAB-Šlesers vote), how will political neophytes do it?

  2. All very good questions – and I believe there is some evidence for a more positive outlook concerning Zatlers. A few months ago TVNET released and detailed WikiLeaks documents from the State Department concerning their interactions with the newly elected Zatlers. Having read them myself, one is very impressed with the high opinion of US officials about Zatlers. They saw him as a true reformer who came to see the abuses of power during his administration and fought against them. Zatlers has somewhat backed off from criticism of Vienotība, accepting without reservations, the possibility of forming a coalition with them. Contrast this with even Visu Latvijai, where Zatlers has stated some preconditions, as he has with Saskaņas centrs. Finally, I have a feeling Vienotība will do better than the polls indicate at this point. You will recall that they were a bit down in public polling before the previous Saeima’s elections. In addition, Valdis Dombrovskis is still seen as the best and most competent figure to be Prime Minister according to the same polling. The “protest” polling occuring right now is probably different than the actual way people will vote, when faced with the choice between Valdis Dombrovskis and his party, a thoroughly well-known entity, and other options. What remains to be seen is how many votes Zatlers will poach from Vienotība, and whether he can achieve the same or more from Saskaņas centre.

  3. There are countries in today’s world where you have to take up arms and fight months long battles to change an unwanted government. Latvia will accomplish this in a relatively short time without a drop of blood, without revolution or coup d’e-tat even without a decent protestation. I don’t know if there are many countries in the world where you can change the existing government merely by calling for a referendum of it’s citizenry, maybe just Switzerland. And if not, then I think Zatlers deserves to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for perhaps starting a new trend.

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