What the Riga Elections Say about Latvian Politics
June 28, 2017
On June 3, 2017, nine Latvian cities and 110 municipalities elected local councils, which are tasked with creating and maintaining municipal regulations, implementing social services, and overseeing local schools. The key question of these elections was whether Harmony, a political party geared towards Latvia’s Russian-speakers, would hold onto power in Riga, the capital city, which it has ruled since 2009.
The alliance between two parties, Harmony and Honor to Serve Riga! (Gods Kalot Rīgai! or GKR), indeed won the majority of votes. But their performance was less impressive than their victory in the 2013 municipal election. In comparison to 2013, the alliance of these two parties lost 7,018 votes and 7 seats in the 60-seat City Council. The alliance’s victory was also much thinner: 58.54% of voters supported the list in 2013, but only 50.82% supported it in 2017.
Two newcomers, the New Conservative Party and the joint list of the Regional Party and For Latvia’s Development, won 9 seats each, while National Alliance and Unity, the two parties that currently form the governing coalition in Latvia at the national level, won 6 and 4 seats, respectively.
These election results illustrate larger trends in Latvian politics in advance of the 2018 legislative elections. Some politicians, no matter what level of government they serve in, do not hesitate to use national identity as a tool in their quest for political support. Harmony is still strong among the Russian-speaking population, but has lost the potential to become an important player among ethnic Latvian voters for a number of reasons. And the ruling coalition parties are challenged by new conservative as well as liberal parties. Unlike in other European countries, there are no major extremist or populist groups or parties on the rise. The situation is stable for now, but using ethnicity for political purposes while failing to address corruption and governance will be destabilizing in the long term.
Ethnic in Form, Corruption in Content
Municipal councils in Latvia are elected in equal, direct, and proportional elections. Before the elections, registered political parties and electoral coalitions of two or more parties propose lists of candidates for the elections. On the Election Day, voters choose one of the proposed party lists. In addition, they have the option of promoting or demoting candidates on their party’s list by adding a plus sign next to candidates they support most strongly. If a party wins ten seats, the top ten candidates on its list will enter parliament.
There are two potential interpretations of the Riga municipal election results. The simplistic version focuses on a purely ethnic narrative: ethnic Latvians and Russian-speakers competed for power in Riga, and the Latvians lost. The other more nuanced—and more accurate—narrative is that eleven lists competed for power in Riga. Some, not all, of them used the question of ethnic-Latvian and ethnic-Russian relations in their bid for power, and Harmony/GKR won. According to the first narrative, the elections were about ethnic divide, while in the other, they were about corruption and good governance.
The Harmony/GKR alliance is more than just a Russian-speakers list. GKR is mainly a party of ethnic Latvians, and Harmony itself has Latvians in its ranks. This detail is often ignored. Both those who celebrate that Latvia’s largest city’s mayor is of Russian descent and those who criticize his policies tend to forget that he retains power thanks to support from ethnic Latvians. In a country where nationality and citizenship are perceived as two separate things, where ethnic identities are strong and the painful events of the 20th century still divide society, these details are important.
In the months before the elections, the national question was constantly and explicitly articulated by the center-right National Alliance. While other parties focused more on alleged corruption in Riga’s City Council and the mismanagement of the city’s renovation projects, National Alliance made the Russian versus Latvian divide a central element of its campaign. Ironically, a live TV debate between Nils Ušakovs, Riga’s incumbent mayor, and National Alliance candidate Baiba Broka turned out to be more of a pleasant chat rather than a heated debate. Known to be friends in real life, both politicians spent more time arguing with journalist than fighting each other. They visibly avoided critiquing each other’s policies and ideas.
Harmony/GKR and other parties were less explicit in their attempts to play the ethnic divide than the National Alliance, but they did not completely abstain from it, implying that these elections were somehow about “us versus them.” Ušakovs called his voters to mobilize because if he was not re-elected, then the “nationalists will win.” Voters for the other parties were asked to vote for “any of them,” in order to the “overthrow” the current mayor of Riga.
An Ethnic Vote?
In municipal as well as in national elections, Russian-speakers generally vote for Harmony, and ethnic Latvians vote mainly for other parties. Unfortunately, both Latvians in Harmony and non-Latvians in other parties faced additional challenges in the electoral race. As noted before, the chances of being elected are determined not only by how many seats a party gets, but also by the minus/plus ratio for each candidate. In these elections, candidates with typically Latvian names in the Harmony/GKR list and candidates with non-Latvian names in the lists of other parties ended up with the lowest plus/minus ratio on almost every list.
These results show that there were voters who systematically crossed out candidates with a different nationality than their own. The number of these ethnically oriented voters is not high, but there is also a second problem: Latvians on the Harmony/GKR list and non-Latvians on the lists of other parties tend to get fewer pluses than the other candidates. They often are less known to the voters of the given party and lack personal connections that help other candidates get as many pluses as possible.
The only party that has addressed this issue is the new liberal-oriented For Latvia’s Development. The party chairman has apologized to candidates of Russian descent and promised to promote their work. For Latvia’s Development is one of the rare parties in Latvia’s political landscape that has publicly stated its ambition to overcome the ethnic divide and “[become] a party of Latvia, not a party of Latvians.” The party claims that its joint list with the Regional Party in Riga was supported by Russian-speakers’ votes.
Over the last few years, Harmony in general and Nils Ušakovs personally have tried to rebrand the party from a Russian-speakers’ party to a social-democratic party that both Russian-speakers and Latvians could vote for. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, it won 31 seats out of 100 total seats. That is a strong result, but other parties have traditionally been able to form a majority that excludes Harmony. At that time, it was claimed that a certain number of ethnic Latvians had voted for the party. Furthermore, the possibility of including Harmony in the government coalition was seriously discussed. However, in the subsequent elections (fall 2014), Harmony lost seven seats, and its inclusion in the government was no longer considered. In the time between the two elections, the party and its leader had alienated Latvian voters by trying to please the most pro-Putin and nationalist part of the Russian-speaking electorate.
In 2012, Ušakovs and other members of his party voted to establish Russian as Latvia’s second official language in a referendum initiated by other Russian-speakers’ groups. The idea was rejected by 74.8% of voters with a participation rate of 70.73%. The second factor that diminished Harmony’s chances to become a cross-ethnic party was Ušakovs’ failure to rally behind Latvia’s official position on the Russian aggression in Ukraine. He harshly criticized the sanctions imposed by the government, visited Moscow just after the annexation of Crimea, and attacked the foreign minister for banning several Russian citizens from visiting Latvia. To this day, Harmony has a cooperation treaty with Putin’s United Russia. It remains torn between a desire to retain ethnic Russian voters and a need for ethnic Latvian voters if it is to ever win a majority.
The Future of Harmony
The results for the Harmony/GKR list could have been much higher given the fact that they used the administrative resources of the city of Riga for self-promotion. At the same time, the results seem logical given the severe criticism that the mayor has faced over the last few years and his own communication failures. Journalists and civil society activists have raised important questions about issues such as lack of transparency in city spending; alleged corruption; lack of bike friendly infrastructure; shortage of places in children’s daycare; shortage of public housing; low quality public works; lack of commitment to make Riga a greener city; a project to build a tram line that would serve an unpopulated and rich neighborhood instead of building one for the densely populated poorest parts of the city; and the damage that the tram line would do to a historical cemetery.
Instead of constructively addressing these criticisms, Ušakovs often avoided questions or chose an aggressive style of communication. As the city’s neighborhoods become more and more mixed, and young urban well-educated people from Russian-speaking families become more and more fluent in Latvian, Harmony will have to reconsider both its vision for the city and its stance on what good governance means. If it fails to do so, then it might not keep power in Riga after the next election. On the national level, by supporting two official languages and failing to support the official government’s line on Ukraine, Harmony lost its chance to cross ethnic lines.
The Future of Other Parties
The Riga elections showed that important changes in the Latvian political landscape might take place in the near future. The results for the three government coalition parties, Farmers and Greens, Unity, and National Alliance in Riga’s City Council elections were disappointing. Unity lost five seats (obtaining only four), and National Alliance lost six seats (obtaining six). Farmers and Greens, whose stronghold has always been the western part of Latvia, did not win any seats in Riga’s City Council in the 2013 and 2017 elections.
Unity’s story is one of the strangest in Latvia’s political history. The center-right party emerged in 2010 as an electoral alliance of smaller center-right parties, with a clear anti-corruption agenda. It led the country through the recovery from the 2009 crisis by applying strong austerity measures and obtained very strong results in both the 2011 early elections and the 2014 elections. In 2014, it seemed like the party was bound to stay a major and stable force in Latvian politics—it had high ratings, a very popular Prime Minister, and a high number of seats in parliament. However, in 2017, it is not clear if the party will survive another election cycle. In hindsight, it is clear that Unity’s decline started when popular Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned in 2013, after a supermarket collapsed in Riga killing 54 people. In 2014, he left for Brussels to become Vice President of the European Commission, and his party gradually destroyed itself in an internal power struggle. In 2016, they were superseded by former enemy the Farmers and Greens. The split between Unity’s liberal and conservative wings has become so deep, and the party’s old leadership so unpopular that the party can only survive by going through a generational change. It is highly likely that they two sides will split.
The Farmers and Greens, a party which despite its name has nothing to do with European green politics, is a center-right party with strong links to the mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, who is often described as an oligarch. Despite this controversy, Farmers and Greens has been the most stable force in Latvian politics since independence. Farmers and Greens has been part of every government collation between 2002 and 2011, and again from 2014 to the present. In 2015, member Raimonds Vējonis was elected president, while member Māris Kučisnkis became prime minister in 2016 after Unity failed to nominate a candidate.
Since then, the government, led by Farmers and Greens, seems to be mainly concerned with maintaining the status quo. Doing so is, of course, important in the context of political upheavals in transatlantic relations. Despite Lemberg’s anti-NATO rhetoric, Farmers and Greens’ ministers, prime minister, and president have been fully committed to Latvia’s pro-Western orientation, signaling a decrease in Lemberg’s influence. At the same time, the government has not been able to address key issues such as the badly needed reforms in healthcare and education systems. Nevertheless, the party will do well in the 2018 elections given its strong base in the Western parts of Latvia that remain loyal no matter what the party does.
The third coalition party, the center-right National Alliance, faces troubling times. It emerged in 2010 as an electoral alliance between the national conservative For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK and All For Latvia!, which was once seen as a far-right group in Latvia. Not only did it lose 6 seats in Riga’s City Council, but it also saw the rise of a potential rival for the right-wing votes in the New Conservative Party. The New Conservative Party was founded in 2014 by Jānis Bordāns, a former member of the National Alliance, but only this year did it become a serious rival to the existing parties. More moderate than the National Alliance and more focused on corruption than any other force in these elections, this party competes for right-wing conservative voters.
The other newcomer in these elections was the strange electoral alliance between the conservative Regional Party and liberal For Latvia’s Development. This alliance—which would seem impossible in any Western European country—shows how little Latvian politics actually are about ideology and how much they are about power and personal networks. The future of these parties is unclear. For Latvia’s Development could become the liberal force that Latvia has been missing—but this of course cannot be done by allying with conservatives. The Regional Party has nothing new to offer in Latvian politics, except a few outspoken personalities who successfully play the system’s challenger card.
Latvian Politics Moving Forward
Given this dynamic, the municipal elections in Riga in particular and in Latvia in general show that the political situation is stable. Unlike in other European countries, there are no major extremist or populist forces on the rise. The most nationalist party in the Latvian political spectrum, the National Alliance, lost seats in Riga. So, too, did Harmony which, despite attempts to brand itself as a social-democratic party, still takes advantage of the ethnic divide. A week after the elections, political tensions and ethnic differences were suddenly forgotten when Aļona Ostapenko, a Latvian tennis player of Russian descent, won the French Open. The celebration of her achievement united the country across ethnic boundaries.
Politicians who use identity differences for political purposes not only weaken society, they also make it vulnerable to Russia’s propaganda efforts. To diminish the potential for ethnic tensions, Harmony should renounce its agreement with United Russia and unequivocally condemn the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the other parties should learn to reach out to the Russian-speaking part of population.