Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Why Latvian Elections Matter for Europe
Why Latvian Elections Matter for Europe

Why Latvian Elections Matter for Europe

On October 6, Latvians will elect a new parliament, and the results of these elections will have consequences beyond the borders of this Baltic state, as they might bring to power forces that would push for closer relations with Russia either because of their political convictions or their business interests. This article offers a pre-election panorama of the main political forces and gives poll-based predictions of possible changes in Latvian politics.

First, before moving forward, a brief overview of the Latvian electoral system is warranted. The 100 members of the Latvian parliament (Saeima) are elected in party-list proportional elections from five voting constituencies. Citizens living abroad can vote, and their votes are counted in the Riga constituency. Parties must surpass a 5% threshold to enter parliament, while parties that reach 2% obtain state funding for the next four years. As it is practically impossible for one party to get the majority of seats, the government is always formed by a coalition of two or more political parties. The president of the Republic can choose a prime minister from any party to form a government. Traditionally, the candidate does not necessarily come from the party that obtained most of the votes, but rather from the party that is the most likely to form a coalition in negotiations with other parties. The future prime minister then chooses the ministers and submits the proposed cabinet to a confidence vote in the parliament.

One of the biggest questions for the upcoming elections and their aftermath is not which party will obtain most of the votes. Everybody knows that most likely it will be the Russian-speakers’ party Harmony. The real question is whether Harmony might finally find coalition partners to craft a majority.

The Two Faces of Harmony

Harmony traditionally has been considered the main political force of Latvian Russian speakers. While not all ethnic Russians living in Latvia vote for Harmony, it has for years been the main political force of Latvia’s most significant ethnic minority. According to the official 2017 statistics, 26% of Latvia’s inhabitants identify themselves as ethnic Russians, 3.2% as Byelorussians, and 2.4 % as Ukrainians. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, Harmony obtained 26% of the vote, and in the snap ballots a year later, it reached 28.4 %, thus technically winning the polls. The victory, however, was purely technical as negotiations between Harmony and other political parties failed, and the party was not included in the governing coalition. The last time that Harmony’s participation in the government was seriously considered was in 2011. In 2012, its leadership supported the controversial idea of making Russian the second official language in Latvia, and, in 2014, it failed to rally behind Latvia’s official position on Russian aggression in Ukraine. These steps, as well as Harmony’s cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s former political party, United Russia, seemed to have been deal breakers not only for the other political parties, but also for some of its voters. In the 2014 election, Harmony obtained only 23% of the votes and lost seven seats in the parliament; its participation in the government was not even discussed.

As it seeks a national political role, Harmony is the leading political force in the country’s capital, running the Riga city council since 2009. Inspired by this success, it has not abandoned the hope of attracting ethnic Latvian votes to enter the government. In recent years, Harmony has tried to rebrand itself as a modern and European social democratic party. This projected image, however, clashes with Harmony’s conservative rhetoric regarding same-sex civil unions and support for Russian-inspired “family values”. In the light of the coming elections, Harmony has denounced its cooperation treaty with United Russia, but has avoided addressing Russian aggression in Ukraine. This spring, Harmony’s deputies voted against the newly adopted legislation that requires Latvian to be the only language of instruction in public schools. At the same, it has not called its supporters to participate in protests against this law organized by a smaller more radical Russian-speakers party, nor has it made this question a central issue of its campaign. These attempts to attract ethnic Latvian voters are not likely to bring a substantial increase in Harmony’s seats in the parliament. As the Riga municipal elections of 2017 showed, Harmony has small prospects to increase its voting base because, first, the ethnic division in Latvia remains strong among older generations, and second, the younger generations who are looking to overcome this divide are repelled by Harmony’s ambivalent attitude toward Putin’s regime and the alleged corruption in the Riga city council. However, while Harmony might not get more votes than in the last elections, it is highly possible that these elections might bring something even more important for Harmony: a coalition that might be willing to accept Harmony as a partner.

The Unexpected Rise of Populists

In 2013, young Latvian actor Artus Kaimiņš started his own show on a private, marginal radio station. His direct, say-it-as-it-is style quickly drew a large audience who saw Kaimiņš as the challenger of the ruling elite’s hypocrisy. Available online, the show became especially popular among young adults and teenagers for whom this was the first experience with political debates. In 2014, Kaimiņš was elected to the Latvian parliament. His party—an alliance of marginal political groups—held its eight seats solely to Kaimiņš and his popularity. In 2016, Kaimiņš broke with the group and founded his own party with the curious name “To Whom Belongs the State?” (Kam Pieder Valsts? or KPV).

Two years later, KPV now polls as the third most popular party. It does not have a detailed program, only a list of appealing promises that resonate with the general population: to increase the number of public kindergartens and funding for public healthcare, to decrease the prices of pharmaceuticals and the number of civil servants, and to improve the situation of retirees and the efficiency of the justice system. The party also has declared three principles that are going to guide its policy and its 115 candidates. Two of them—concentration of power and radical action—seem like an attempt to flirt with the idea of authoritarian efficiency. The third one also serves as KPV’s main slogan for this elections: “The state has to start with itself!”

The idea behind this confusing phrase captures the anti-elite sentiment that fuels KPV popularity: the rotten ruling class has corrupted the state, and no positive changes in Latvia are possible without removing them. KPV has not only introduced Trump style anti-establishment rhetoric in Latvian politics, but has also been the first Latvian party that has methodically worked to obtain the votes from the Latvian diaspora abroad. Around 250,000 Latvians have left Latvia since it became part of the European Union (EU) in 2004. Together with the “old diaspora”—made of World War II refugees and their descendants—these emigrants can potentially elect 8 out of 100 deputies in the Latvian parliament. KPV rhetoric resonates with the anger of those Latvian working class emigrants for whom emigration has not been a choice of opportunity, but a poverty-driven necessity and even disappointment. Though there is little polling about their voting intentions for the election, this demographic supported Kaimiņš in the last election.

However, while KPV thrives on anti-elite anger, journalists have pointed at links between KPV and Ainārs Šlesers, a Latvian oligarch who was pushed out of Latvian politics in the 2011 snap elections. This alleged connection is important not only because it would put in question the KPV’s counter-establishment identity, but also because Šlesers is known for his willingness to cooperate with Harmony and his sympathies for United Russia. Kaimiņš himself had claimed that cooperation between his party and Harmony would be possible only if and when Harmony renounces the idea of Russian as the second language of instruction in Latvia’s public schools, recognizes that the USSR illegally occupied Latvia, and accepts that Russia illegally occupies Crimea.

It is hard to foresee whether this promise will be kept after the elections if cooperation with Harmony opens a clear pathway toward a governing coalition. KPV is unpredictable because just like the current U.S. president, it rejects existing norms of political conduct. Furthermore, just like in the case of Trump supporters, the fans of Kaimiņš seem to be unshakable in their loyalty. The fact that in June he was temporarily arrested and interrogated for alleged illegal financing of his party did not decrease his popularity; it may have even increased it. In other words, it is not impossible that a party with an unpredictable leader and forgiving base would cooperate with Harmony. During pre-election debates organized by the diaspora organizations in London, Kaimiņš avoided answering if his party would enter a coalition with Harmony.

However, it is unlikely that KPV and Harmony combined would obtain the 51 seats in the parliament needed to form a majority. They would need a third player. Their only possible choice would be the Latvian party Farmers and Greens—a political force that currently holds the office of the prime minister and the president.

A Party with No Ideology—Latvian Farmers and Greens

The Farmers and Greens, a party that despite its name has nothing to do with European green politics, has strong links to the mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, who is often described as an oligarch. Farmers and Greens has been the most stable force in Latvian politics since independence: it has been part of every government collation between 2002 and 2011, and again from 2014 to present. It has a strong base in the countryside of Western Latvia, where it exercises some degree of influence in almost every municipal council. While for the majority of Farmers and Greens rural voters cooperation with Harmony would be unacceptable, its sponsor Aivars Lembergs appears sympathetic to this idea. In 2017, the Latvian weekly journal IR leaked a transcript of a 2011 conversation between Lembergs, Šlesers, and a leader of Harmony. During the discussion, Lembergs claims to have instructed Farmers and Greens not to allow any party member who might be hostile to Harmony to run for office.

At the same time, it seems that the younger generations of Farmers and Greens leaders are distancing themselves from Lembergs. For example, despite Lembergs’ anti-NATO rhetoric, Farmers and Greens’ leaders have shown a strong commitment to Latvia’s pro-Western orientation. However, its leadership has given mixed signals about potential cooperation with Harmony. While Augusts Brigmanis, the chairman of the party, has denied such a possibility, IR has reported that Farmers and Greens is running opinion polls among its base to test their attitude toward a coalition with Harmony. Meanwhile, Ojārs Spārītis, who had been rumored to be a potential Farmers and Greens candidate for the presidency of the Republic, has claimed “not to be strongly against such a cooperation.”

Weakened Nationalists, Rising Conservatives

Unlike in other parts of Europe, these elections are not promising for nationalist forces. The National Alliance cannot expect any increase in its parliamentary numbers. A member of the government since 2011, the party has a very ambivalent track record over the last fours years. While the work of its minister of culture has been praised in the context of Latvia’s centenary celebrations, the minister of justice has failed to improve the efficiency and transparency of the justice system. In the past, some members of the National Alliance were seen as an anti-establishment group, but the party is now part of the Latvian political establishment. While its presence in the governing coalition has pulled Latvian political rhetoric to the right, the party has lost its anti-elite image. Furthermore, the party that once upon a time claimed to have irreproachable ethics is now haunted by the arrest of its former secretary general on embezzlement charges.

The main rival of the National Alliance in these elections is the New Conservative party led by Jānis Bordāns, a former member of the National Alliance and minister of justice. His New Conservative party, founded in 2014, has a strong anti-corruption agenda and counts former officers of the anti-corruption police in its ranks. Both the National Alliance and the New Conservatives are strongly pro-EU and pro-NATO. However, when it comes to the EU, both see it as a union of sovereign states and oppose further integration. While none of these parties has the capacity to become a leading force in a future government, they might become a member of the governing collation. However, their options are minimal. First, it is not clear if these two parties could cooperate after the New Conservatives have accused members of the National Alliance of bribery. Second, none of them would work with Harmony. Third, New Conservatives have also refused to cooperate with the Farmers and Greens that, as mentioned before, has strong links with the oligarch mayor of Ventspils. This leaves these two nationalist parties with little choice but to reach out to the liberal parties that also are struggling to get a significant representation in the new parliament.

Divided Liberals

Three Latvian political parties strongly support individual rights and freedoms. Among them is New Unity, known until this year as Unity: a political party that led the country through the dramatic aftermath of the 2008-2009 economic crisis. The main political force in the country until 2014, it has now lost its influence due to internal conflicts and the departure for Brussels of its highly popular prime minister, Valdis Dombrovskis. While New Unity is liberal when it comes to individual liberties, it is a fiscally conservative center-right party at its core. Its main rival, and at the same time potential partner in these elections, is Attīstībai/Par, a joint list of three liberal-oriented parties that have managed to agree upon a center-left program. The third political force that will fight for the voices of the liberal voters is The Progressives, a new political party that for the first time since the interwar period offers a genuinely social-democratic program to Latvian voters.

All three above-mentioned parties are united in their support for a gender-neutral civil union law, which is an important and controversial issue in these elections. At the same time, they are divided when it comes to social policies. New Unity is fiscally conservative, while Attīstībai/Par and the Progressives are willing to increase the social budget. While New Unity is a party of experienced politicians, including the current Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, Attīstībai/Par has in its ranks both young grass-roots activists and people who have been in politics since the early 2000s. Progressive pride themselves for bringing entirely new forces to Latvian politics and placing women in prominent roles.

The various lengths of time that the members of these three political forces have spent in politics serves as one of the main reasons for their inability to form a joint list. While Attīstībai/Par sees New Unity as the old guard, Progressives criticize the younger generation of Attīstībai/Par for joining forces with old politicians and accepting donations from big businesses. At the same time, while The Progressives have avoided any outside influence over their agenda by mostly self-funding the campaign, their limited campaign budget has left party struggling to pass the required 5% threshold for entering the parliament.  At the same time, whether The Progressives enter the parliament or not, the party has strong potential to reach the 2% threshold that would allow it to obtain state funding for the next four years and enable it to become a lasting force in Latvian politics. Having said that, the latest polls show that the much more generously funded Attīstībai/Par is balancing on the edge around 5%, while New Unity might win around 8% of the votes.

The Future of Latvia

Since 1991, Latvia’s foreign policy has been so strongly oriented toward integration with Europe and NATO that seemingly only a political earthquake could take the country off a pro-Western track. The pre-election dynamics, however, show that Latvia could just simply sleepwalk into a Russian zone of influence.

If the tendencies shown in the August polls continue, the Farmers and Greens will hold the keys to Latvia’s future. With approximately 17% of votes, it will be the second largest force after Harmony, and its members will be able to choose what kind of government they want to work with. One option will be a large coalition consisting of nationalist and liberal parties, similar to the existing Unity-Farmers and Greens-National Alliance government. However dysfunctional and contradictory this coalition might be, it will keep Latvia on a pro-Western track.

The Farmers and Greens could also decide to form a government with KPV and Harmony. Such a scenario could occur if the most reactionary and corrupt forces inside the Farmers and Greens overtake those without strong personal connections to Aivars Lembergs.  If a Farmers and Greens-Harmony-KPV government is put in place, the outcomes for Latvia’s foreign policy would be unpredictable. It might be hoped that a pro-EU foreign minister from the Farmers and Greens and the professionalism of the diplomatic service would keep Latvia on the pro-Western track until the next elections. However, the risks that such a government would bring Latvia closer to the Russian zone of influence are high. When it comes to Harmony’s plans for Latvia’s foreign policy, past behavior might be the best predictor of future actions. In 2014, Harmony’s leader, Nils Ušakovs, harshly criticized sanctions against Russia, visited Moscow just after the annexation of Crimea, and attacked the foreign minister for banning several Russian citizens from visiting Latvia. When it comes to KPV, its leaders lack any experience in foreign policy, and if the allegations of KPV links with oligarch Šlesers are true, his sympathies for Putin’s regime will be problematic.

Another risk for Latvia in these elections is drifting toward a Polish style illiberal democracy. A coalition of Farmers and Greens, KPV, and National Alliance would not compromise with Putin’s regime, but would reinforce the right-wing populist camp in the European Union. For years Latvia has been standing at the crossroads between Northern and Central Europe. October 6 might be the definitive choice between following Estonia in its efforts to build an open and inclusive Northern European society or joining the Polish and Hungarian alternatives. 

At the same time, the 2018 elections are the first since 1991 in which ideas of individual freedom and social and ethnic inclusion are so strongly defended. Attīstībai/Par and The Progressives have dared to adopt positions that no previous political forces have. Their example has also encouraged New Unity to support same sex civil unions, which until now has been taboo in Latvian politics. Never since 1991 have socially liberal forces been so strong; never have pro-Russian forces seemed so close to government; and never has right-wing populism seemed so powerful. The stakes are high as Latvia goes to vote.