So, it’s all over. Weeks of campaigning ended with the results declared on Sunday and the coalition re-elected.
Contrary to popular belief, as an Irish and British citizen, I can vote in Latvia and for local parties and have done so in the past. But this only applies to local and European elections, so I couldn’t take part in this one. Spoilsports!
As psephology (the study of elections and voting behaviour) has always been a big hobby of mine, I followed the campaign with interest. There were some things that struck me about campaigns here versus campaigns in the UK. Politicians here seem a bit more distant and aloof at election time. In Northern Ireland you’d have at least one candidate knocking on your door and representatives of most political parties, seeing if you’re a definite to vote for them, a maybe or a no. They’ll then use this info to make sure you vote on election day (offering transport to the voting place if needed) or try to persuade you if you’re a maybe. There will also be cars driving round, with loudspeakers urging you to vote for their party or candidate and politicians will make impromptu appearances in town centres to drum up support. None of that happened here, at least in Riga.
One thing that did remind me of Northern Ireland is that the campaign was dominated to some extent by fears of the other nationality’s side topping the poll, even though, as in Northern Ireland, topping the poll has pyschological value only. The main campaign issue was Russia and, more specifically, Russian foreign policy in Ukraine and elsewhere. Putin’s pronouncements on defending the interests of Russians abroad has been seized on by Latvian politicians as a sign that Latvia could be in line at some future point for Kremlin attempts to regain influence in a former Soviet state.
As always in Latvia, the political party system didn’t remain stable. It has always been highly volatile. At every election parties will split, merge, emerge and disband. The most prominent example this time was the demise of The Reform Party. In 2011, a year after the previous election, parliament voted to prevent the corruption bureau searching the houses of two oligarch politicians. The President, Valdis Zatlers, who, up to that point, had been a low-profile figurehead, shocked everyone by springing into action. He effectively pressed the nuclear button, calling a referendum on dissolving parliament, which took its revenge by replacing him as President in the scheduled Presidential election (presidents here are chosen by parliament) which he’d previously been expected to win comfortably.
With 94% of voters in the referendum voting to dissolve parliament, Zatlers set up his own party, which exploited discontent with the outgoing parliament’s actions by becoming the second biggest party at the subsequent election in 2011. However, it achieved little in the way of real reform, suffered splits just months after formation, with 6 of its 22 elected members quitting the party shortly after the election, and basically seems to have fallen on its sword. Officially, The Reform Party was in an electoral pact with Unity, but as I’ll explain below, it seemed more like a disbanding to me.
For people unfamiliar with Latvian politics, here is a brief summary of parties who stood, in order of the votes they got (a kind of “Latvian parties for dummies” guide…)
SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY “HARMONY” (previously Harmony Centre and sometimes called Concord Centre, which sounds like an office block in English) emerged for the 2006 general election and quickly displaced the much more radical “For Human Rights in a United Latvia” as the main party for ethnic Russian voters, helped by the defection of the Daugavpils City Party from the latter to the former. As well as Russian rights, its policies are mostly left of centre.
Limited for most of its existence to Russian areas, it did manage to expand its support base at municipal level, especially in Riga. This was in part due to the popularity of Riga mayor, and party leader, Nils Ušakovs, who pushed a range of leftist and pensioner friendly policies in the city. This worked and, at the last municipal elections, Harmony romped home in Riga, with 58% of the vote, a fair proportion of which must have come from ethnic Latvians.
During the campaign however, Ušakovs made a number of slips, seeming to praise Putin as the “best option available for Latvia” (in terms of Russian leaders, though the latter qualification, predictably, was often omitted when quoted by opponents) and refusing to condemn the annexation of the Crimea. In the election it was one of the least gender balanced lists, with over 80% of its candidates men.
UNITY (“VIENOTIBA”) was formed before the 2010 election as a merger of 3 parties, who themselves had emerged as splits from other parties. Centre-right, it’s generally seen as the main moderate party for ethnic Latvians and the main reason behind its formation was to counterbalance the growth of Harmony. Since 2010, it’s provided the Prime Minister of Latvia. For this election it included some former Reform Party members, but this seemed more like a partial annexation than a merger of equals. One of the more colourful moments in the campaign was a minor scandal, when one of the Prime Minister’s aides was found to have auditioned for a role in a porn film.
UNION OF GREENS AND FARMERS (ZZS) , much more centre-right than a lot of Green parties worldwide, who tend to be of a more left-wing persuasion, they mostly push populist policies and have a secure base with farmers. The party’s most colourful/controversial character is long term Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs.
The multi-millionaire, dissed by critics as a pro-Russian oligarch, seems to have been mayor of Latvia’s sixth biggest town since the Ice Age (since 1988 actually) and also, to have been on trial for various charges of corruption for about the same amount of time (since at least 2008.) It hasn’t prevented his re-election or diminished his popularity, nor that of ZZS, which he bankrolls. This, ironically, makes it probably the only Green party in the world to be mostly funded by the oil industry. Lembergs was embroiled in further controversy earlier this year, when, following scuffles between NATO sailors and local yobs in his Ventspils base, he compared NATO membership to the Soviet occupation. In fairness, his views make him something of a maverick even within his own party.
NATIONAL ALLIANCE, this more right-wing party for ethnic Latvians is another merger of smaller parties and has cut a niche for itself with more Latvian nationalist and Russophobe policies. Of the merged parties, Fatherland and Freedom was a fairly conservative one, with a number of fairly talented people and its major figure economist Roberts Zile. I met Zile many moons ago in Istanbul of all places and he seemed reasonably personable but the other main party, All for Latvia! (Visu Latvijai!) has an unfortunate minority of xenophobic nutters who wouldn’t be out of place in a party like the BNP in Britain. The climate of Russian expansionism provided it with fruitful ground in these elections and understandably it pushed a message of “We told ya so!”
FOR LATVIA FROM THE HEART, a new party in these elections and largely the personal vehicle of former state auditor Inguna Sudraba. To be honest, I’m instantly suspicious of a party with a cuddly name that sounds like a Chris DeBurgh album and tells people absolutely nothing about what it stands for. She didn’t get off to the best of starts. During her press conference to announce her entry into politics, news broke that the Prime Minister had resigned, causing Sudraba to faint mid-speech. Videos of her being carried out unconscious didn’t exactly inspire confidence in her ability to deal with the type of unexpected events politicians will have to routinely handle.
Reading their manifesto, it trended to very slightly left of centre, but was full of lots of “this is how things should be” type pronouncements, with little concrete on exactly how they would achieve that. To be fair, this wasn’t any different from a lot of the larger parties, but, as a new party seeking to build a support base, the onus was on the hearties to be a bit more specific.
During the campaign, Sudraba was relentlessly attacked by her opponents, who dubbed her party “Harmony mark 2” following her ill-advised lunch with a Russian oligarch in Moscow. Some of the attacks seemed a bit puerile and childish, contrasting her appearance years earlier with her current one.
To be honest though, in an era, where, unfortunately, image matters in politics, her election posters, which showed her looking like a stern headmistress, didn’t really help in my opinion.
LATVIAN REGIONAL ALLIANCE, another partly new party (though the Latvian Social Democratic Party, which was represented in the parliament in the 1990s is a major component.)It fought the election mostly on a platform of improving regional infrastructure, but its manifesto also had some more right wing policy positions, such as increasing defence spending and opposing gay marriage.
While the above parties passed the 5% threshold and therefore will be represented in the new parliament, a number of other parties didn’t make it.
LATVIAN RUSSIAN UNION, formerly “For Human Rights in a United Latvia” (PCTVL or Za-pa-chel) the LRU was the main Russian party until being eclipsed by Harmony at the 2006 election. It has a much more radical programme than Harmony, including outright support for Russian foreign policy. Its most prominent figure is Tatjana Ždanoka. The latter has long been a hate figure for many Latvians, given her background in the Soviet communist party. She was elected to the European parliament in 2004 and subsequently re-elected in 2009 and 2014. In the latter year, this was despite most predicting that she would lose her seat. Her personal popularity seems to run way ahead of LRU, though. Its policies occasionally border on teary-eyed nostalgia for the USSR. This might have worked in the 1990s, but a lot of ethnic Russians of voting age weren’t even born when the USSR collapsed, so UHR seems outdated.
UNITED FOR LATVIA was the equivalent of a musical supergroup of 70s musicians, featuring oligarch Ainars Slesers and former Prime Ministers Kalvitis and Godmanis, along with a host of other ministers from governments of the mid-2000s. They made a big deal of their experience in the campaign. The problem was that much of this experience was presiding over the biggest economic crisis in Latvia’s post-Soviet period and it’s a bit too soon for voters to forgive and forget.
LATVIAN DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATION, led by former Prime Minister Einars Repše. The latter was once one of the most popular politicians in Latvian, but an abrasive style and allegations of corruption relating to real estate deals saw his star wane. While he was found not guilty of any wrongdoing, some of the mud seems to have stuck.
NEW CONSERVATIVE PARTY, mostly fought the election on a mainstream conservative line. However, that ground is already adequately covered by National Alliance and Unity, so it was hard to see the point in them.
FREEDOM. FREE FROM FEAR, HATE AND ANGER. The party with the lengthiest name fought the election with a few novel policies, including a progressive income tax and giving citizenship to anyone born in the country after 1991, but lacked the resources to get anywhere.
GROWTH focused mostly on increased spending in the health and science sector and favoured harsher policies on alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
SOVEREIGNTY had quite a colorful right wing manifesto, including exiting the EU and NATO, restoring the Lat as the national currency, free public transport and a tax on foreign workers. Finished last with 0.1% of the vote.
So, the results, courtesy of Wikipedia…
|Social Democratic Party “Harmony”||209,885||23.00||24||–7|
|Union of Greens and Farmers||178,212||19.53||21||+8|
|For Latvia from the Heart||62,521||6.85||7||New|
|Latvian Association of Regions||60,812||6.66||8||New|
|Latvian Russian Union||14,390||1.58||0||0|
|United for Latvia||10,788||1.18||0||New|
|For Latvia’s Development||8,155||0.89||0||New|
|New Conservative Party||6,389||0.70||0||New|
|Freedom. Free from Fear, Hate and Anger||1,735||0.19||0||0|
The turnout, at less than 59%, was a record low.
On his blog, Ritvars had a good post showing the most voted for party across Latvia.
Overall, Harmony declined a fair bit, losing some voters to Sudraba’s lists. I really think they missed an opportunity here. With most of the Latvian parties right of centre, there’s definite space for a more leftist party to exploit that with different economic policies designed to appeal to lower income ethnic Latvian voters. Harmony has managed that in local elections in Riga, but in these elections, with the exception of Riga, has failed to expand its base and remains stuck in an ethnic Russian vote ghetto. The low turnout shows that not everyone may be happy with how the government is doing, but Harmony’s campaign, with its failure to distance itself from Russian foreign policy alienated a lot of moderate voters and restricted its appeal.
There are already arguments on Wikipedia and elsewhere over how Unity did, given that they were officially in an electoral alliance with the former Reform Party. Was it, as opponents suggest, a disastrous collapse, relative to the combined Unity/Reform party vote in 2011? Or, as other observers, like the Financial Times suggest, a modest increase on the 2011 Unity total? Personally, I tend to the latter viewpoint. Polls before the Unity/Reform Party tie-up didn’t show any major decrease in the Unity vote share.
The Greens and National Alliance both had a decent election result and will probably want a larger share of government as a result. From that perspective, it is a bit of a loss for Unity.
Of the smaller parties, the Regional Alliance did well, but For Latvia from the heart, having been at 15% in some of the opinion polls over the last two months, must be a bit disappointed with the result. Some of the attacks on its leader found their mark.
So, overall to answer my question in the title, who won the elections? For me, the answer is more of a “what?”
The first and obvious answer is stability and the status quo. The coalition parties all increased their share of votes and seats and have a large majority to continue with for another 4 years.
The other winners though are a bit more depressing. The first is apathy. 58% turnout is fairly dismal and comes back to what I said at the beginning about candidates being a bit invisible during the campaign. If you don’t watch TV, you’d be forgiven for having missed the fact that an election was actually on. Parties here need to find new ways to engage with voters and motivate them to come out and vote.
The last “winner” is polarisation. Riga aside, the vote seems to have gone along ethnic lines. That’s not good for either ethnic Latvians or Russians. The result is a type of Mexican standoff which suits neither side. For their part, Harmony remain seemingly permanently excluded and this presents the risk that, sooner or later, they’ll be overtaken by another party, just as they replaced the Latvian Russian Union. On the Latvian side, the exclusion of Harmony plays into the Kremlin’s hands as it allows the latter to promote their narrative of an excluded Baltic Russian minority whose interests will be better looked after from Moscow than Riga. Breaking this deadlock remains a challenge for the government parties going forward, but it takes two to tango and with Harmony refusing to soften or moderate its policy positions and put distance between itself and Moscow, and the Ukraine conflict raging in the background. compromise is unlikely in the short-term.
So for now, it’s as you were, but it remains to be seen whether some of the parties will learn the lessons of the elections. (*Related: How did Latvians abroad vote?*)