Who won the Latvian general election?

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.

sudrab_110809 sudraba

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.

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So, the results, courtesy of Wikipedia…

Party Votes % Seats +/–
Social Democratic Party “Harmony” 209,885 23.00 24 –7
Unity 199,535 21.87 23 +3
Union of Greens and Farmers 178,212 19.53 21 +8
National Alliance 151,568 16.61 17 +3
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
Growth 1,515 0.17 0 New
Sovereignty 1,033 0.11 0 New
Invalid/blank votes 6,953
Total 913,491 100 100 0
Registered voters/turnout 1,552,235 58.85

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.

2014-s

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.

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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?*)

 

 

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21 thoughts on “Who won the Latvian general election?

  1. Hey
    Thouroughly enjoyed reading this! Did you manage to follow the actor Artuss Kaimins’ pre election activities? He actually did travel to NI to meet latvians there and look at the result! think he went from being last on the list to the top.

    • Yeah, I saw some of Kaimins’ activities, but missed the visit to NI. I don’t watch a lot of tv, either in English or in Latvian, and was in South America for a month, so missed a fair bit of the campaign fun.

    • A gentleman should never tell 🙂 but as I’m pretty centrist in my politics these days, none of the parties further out would have got my vote. So no Harmony, Zdanoka or National Alliance.

  2. I checked the Wikipedia, in corresponding article in English “Saskaņa” is really called “Harmony”, which looks like a prank to me. Because I see harmony is something close to philosophy or religions, but as a more suitable translation I’d call “consensus”. Even something like “agreement” or “understanding” would be reflecting the idea better than “harmony”. Although it feels that roots of this translation are visible in “dzīvot saskaņā ar …” for which the closest match would be really “to live in harmony with …”, but the meaning of the separate word is kinda lost there.

  3. As for the conclusion reached about overall activity I wouldn’t be so harsh because the total number of eligible voters is provided by PMLP whose numbers of total population are well known to be inflated (compared to population stats of CSP) – not representing the large numbers of people who emigrated. Therefore if the question is “what share of citizens in Latvia vote?” – the number would be noticeably better (though I haven’t done any calculations to prove it.

    • I considered that as a factor, but the problem is that people also complained about the population stats being out of date for the 2006, 2010 and 2011 elections. So it’s true that the real turnout was higher than 58%, but the trend does seem to be downwards relative to previous elections.

  4. Nice analysis and summary! I’m not sure I knew that you could vote in local and European elections while living in LV – that’s great. As a Latvian living outside of Latvia, I found the statistics on number of people voting in the foreign precincts to being quite interesting. 522 in Toronto, 311 Melbourne, 90 (!) in Dubai, 944 in Oslo. The first two are definitely a mix of post-WWII immigrants and their descendants and recent immigrants, whereas the last two would pretty much only be people who’ve moved to those places in the last two decades.

    Seeing as the American way of voting is so different (all electronic nowadays – a bit scary, truth be told), I always wonder about the “valid envelopes” and “valid ballots” thing. What exactly makes them invalid? And are voters doing that on purpose or accidentally?

    • Yes, it’s an EU wide thing. EU citizens resident in another member state can vote in that country’s local and EU elections. For the local elections, they send me the voting paper automatically. For the EU one, they send me out a letter which I have to complete to vote in Latvia (they then inform the UK to not let me vote there.) Interesting about the expat votes, do you have a link?

      The valid envelopes and ballots is to prevent people from voting more than once, which they could do by forging the ballots or envelopes. In some cases, it is down to misunderstanding, people putting two lists into an envelope, mistakenly thinking they can vote for both, for example. Some people do deliberately spoil their vote, either as a protest or that they just want to do their civic duty, but don’t like any of the parties. My ex was in the latter category.

      • People thinking they can vote for two parties is a bit sad, but also goes to show that the Latvian system is pretty complicated!

        Yes, the CVK website has a wealth of info, it can just be a tad difficult to find. On this page: http://sv2014.cvk.lv/Result-8.html, scroll down about halfway, and you’ll see “Vēlēšanu results Ārzemes iecirkņos.” If you pick “All” for “Displayed Entries”, you’ll see details about every single foreign precinct!

  5. What, no mention of the Citadele debacle?

    I’d say that the shitstorm that is Ukraine has caused the decline of results for Harmony. When you have one left-wing party going for any votes they can get, and the rest are more or less right-wingers going for the ethnic Latvian vote, it’s a perfect time to invoke the usual ‘what, a better life? But THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!’ chant – and the most pathetic thing is that people buy this, and a party that tries to be conciliatory and non-divisive is bound to lose votes.

    The terrible thing is that the parties that will form the government, i.e. Unity and Greens&Farmers (which I’d much rather call Illiterates&Yokels, given their no-GMO stance), are fucking hawks. These people openly supported the increase of the defence budget to 2% and increasing the number of the Zemessardze personnel in their election campaigns. Not only it’s moronic from the purely military point of view (if the the sky does blow up, the Four Smurf Horsemen do roam the Earth, and the Russians do come – what piddling difference will it make?), it’s a bloody waste of money – and we have better things to spend it on. Plus, it’s a treasure for corruption – the military aren’t subject to the public purchase laws, and are completely opaque to any scrutiny on their spendings.

    The sad thing is that it’s clear that it’ll be a long time till the people take their heads out of their bottoms and we’ll finally have a left-wing government.

    I doubt that Harmony is going away, and I think that their attempts to at least try to be like a ‘typical’ EU SD party (not in a bad way) are admirable and a reason for some hope. And their ‘we’re in this together’ rather than ‘you owe us’ stance on the ethnic question is much more defensible, and might even result in something that isn’t a nationalist’s dream.

    But just 19% of women in their candidate list is pathetic. When I voted, I just gave pluses to all the women in their list, not looking at the names.

    • Yeah I was writing this more from a point of view of focusing on the parties than the campaign, I thought of things like Citadele, but I was trying to keep this below 5,000 words. I agree regarding the defence budget, but like a lot of stuff, they have no choice as the pressure to do it comes externally. Reagrding Harmony, I think in part they are to blame for their own decrease. People already knew where they stood on Russia issues, so there was nothing to be gained by repeating it (and lots of voters to alienate in the current climate.) Pushing a more left wing economic alternative should have been the focus, as there wasn’t really a credible Latvian party with such policies.

      • I don’t know how they were painted in the media – which, knowing how ethnically biassed they can be here, means that any conciliatory attitude in foreign and ethnic policies (a prerequisite for any bloody progressive party) will be seen as betrayal. I have been basing my opinions and my choice on the election programmes of the parties, and the information they were giving on their web-sites.

        And not only Harmony is the only party with a distinctly left-wing programme (promising to introduce progressive income tax, dividend, large inheritance and luxury item taxes, lower VAT rates on basic goods and heating – sounds like a left-oriented policy to me, doesn’t it?), their economic policies are the main point there.

  6. ok I have a question… why doesnt Latvia ban all Russia-related political parties? havent they had enough with the occupation? otherwise they may find themselves in the same situation as Ukraine, having chunks of their territory under Russian control. all parties defending Russian interests should be banned, this is Latvia after all.

    • For many, many reasons. First off, it’s very hard to ban political parties in a democracy, that’s usually the preserve of dictatorships like those in the Middle East, Central and East Asia etc. You need almost definite evidence that they’re up to no good and even then it doesn’t happen. Look at Germany for example, twice the government has tried to ban the NPD, because they are clearly a bunch of Hitler worshipping neo-nazis, but both times the NPD have successfully challenged the ban in court. Harmony Centre, a social democratic party are nowhere near in the same league as the NPD. Also, with Latvia already being criticised for the number of people who can’t vote (at least 10% of the population don’t have citizenship) banning a mainstream party would not go down well internationally and would almost certainly be successfully challenged as being incompatible with both Latvian and EU law. The final reason is that it’s better to give people a way to vent their anger through elections. If pro-Russia parties are banned, there’s a danger that Russian rights groups will turn to less legal practices, extra-parliamentary agitation, perhaps even violence and it would give the Kremlin a massive propaganda boost.

  7. damn I feel sorrry for Latvians. why do Russians have to be so mean? I traveled through Russia and met tons of friendly and easy going people, was is just an illusion? why are Russians in Latvia so angry? do they realise why they are not liked? and what kind of anger are they supposed to be feeling? btw after the Ukraine crisis EU may have realised what danger Russian immigrants are to any sivilized society. perhaps if Latvia decided to ban all parties that openly support Russian interests (or interests of any nationality rather than Latvian) EU would be more understanding. plus I always thought EU kind of uses Latvia as means to attack and hurt Russian interests so arent they supposed to be supportive?

    • ‘ why are Russians in Latvia so angry? do they realise why they are not liked? and what kind of anger are they supposed to be feeling? btw after the Ukraine crisis EU may have realised what danger Russian immigrants are to any sivilized society’

      Congratulations, you’re officially an ignoramus and a xenophobe. Take some time to educate yourself and check the hate – you might even answer some of your questions (or realise there is no need to ask them in the first place).

  8. thank you nerdator you ve answered my question) oh well. I hope the behaviour of Russian minority in latvia is not typical for this nationality. my experience with Russians so far have been mostly very positive. oh well. every herd has a black sheep I guess.

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