Home / Articles / Latvia’s Balancing Act: The Birth of a Pushmi-pullyu Government
On October 6, 2018, Latvians voted in parliamentary elections, and the stakes were high as both a pro-Russia shift and a rise of a Polish-style illiberal democracy seemed possible. However, once again, Latvia stayed on its pro-European track, despite internal divisions and the emergence of a local populist party.
The results of the election did not rule out a shift in Latvia’s politics. Harmony, a political party comprised of Russian-speakers that had a cooperation treaty with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party until recently, obtained 23 seats out of 100. The New Conservative Party got 16 seats, and so did KPV, a populist party that had promised “radical action” and “centralization of power.” Both the nationalist party (National Alliance) and the liberal party (Attīstībai Par!) obtained 13 seats. Farmers and Greens, a party that had strong links with the last Latvian oligarch Aivars Lembergs, faced a crushing defeat (11 seats) and thus could risk joining all kinds of political alliances. Finally, New Unity, a center-right strongly pro-European party that had led Latvia out of the 2009 economic crisis, hardly made it into the Saeima obtaining only eight seats.
Almost four months and many negotiations later, a new government, supported by a large five-party coalition, was approved by the Saeima. Against all the odds, the country is once again led by Unity. The new Prime Minister, former Deputy of European Parliament Krišjānis Kariņš, assumed office on January 23, 2019. The lengthy negotiations process did not only once again excluded Harmony, but also minimized oligarchic influence over Latvian politics and deeply divided the populist party.
Another Failure for Harmony
In the days following the 2018 elections, the international press was flooded by alarming headlines announcing the victory of pro-Russian forces in Latvian parliamentary elections. This grim news was, however, misleading. Harmony, a party traditionally perceived as the main political force of Latvia’s 30% strong Russian-speaking minority, had indeed won the highest number of votes, but in Latvia’s proportional representation system, Harmony’s 19.80% of votes gave the party 23 seats. As a stable and well-functioning government needs the support of at least 51 parliamentarians, Harmony could theoretically have formed a coalition with one or two other parties. In practice, this was hardly an option. Harmony’s past support for Russian as the second official language and its failure to rally behind Latvia’s official position on the war in Ukraine has made it very hard for Harmony to find allies on the national level.
Furthermore, since the 2011 snap elections, which were the most successful ones in the history of the party, Harmony lost 92,813 votes and eight seats. This relative decline is due to several factors. First, part of Harmony’s electorate has shifted toward a smaller and more nationalist Russian-speakers’ party, which failed to reach the 5% threshold necessary to enter the Saeima. Second, Harmony’s above-mentioned position during the 2012 language referendum and the 2014 Ukrainian crisis has alienated its moderate voters from Russian as well as Ukrainian and Latvian backgrounds. As Harmony found itself excluded from the negotiations, it seemed that the potential Prime Minister would come from either conservative, populist, or liberal parties.
The First Attempt to Form a Government: The Conservatives
One of the most significant results of these elections was the success of the New Conservative Party. Unlike the National Alliance that until now dominated Latvian right-wing politics, the New Conservative Party did not place ethnic questions at the center of its election campaign. Founded in 2014, this party focuses on the fight against corruption and counts former officers of the anti-corruption police in its ranks. The electoral success of the New Conservative Party (16 seats) went hand-in-hand with a relative decrease of support for National Alliance, which lost four seats.
Jānis Bordāns, the leader of the New Conservative Party, was the first choice of President Raimonds Vējonis, who holds the constitutional right to nominate a potential Prime Minister. While Bordāns seemed to hold all the cards needed to form a government, the negotiations failed, and Vējonis redrew his proposal even before a confirmation vote. While the liberal Attīstībai Par! pointed at the lack of “trust” and “respect” during the negotiation process, the New Conservatives accused liberals of willingness to cooperate with the oligarchs.
For many years, Latvian politics have been influenced by three businessmen: former Minister of Transportation Ainārs Šlesers, the Mayor of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs, and former Prime Minister Andris Šķēle. Two of these so-called oligarchs saw a radical decline of their power after their parties were defeated in 2010 and 2011 elections. The third, Aivars Lembergs, still exercises some influence over the Farmers and Greens, a party that was leading Latvia’s government since 2016.
The 2018 elections were an important defeat of Farmers and Greens, who lost ten seats. The New Conservatives, who had made non-cooperation with Farmers and Greens one of their key election promises, insisted on a government without them. Their potential partners, however, argued that a choice between weakened Farmers and Greens and unpredictable KPV was not obvious. Before the elections, journalists had reported alleged links between KPV and oligarch Ainars Šlesers. If these allegations were true, then KPV risked being used by a man who openly argues for closer relations with Russia. As the conservative attempts to form a government failed over this choice between two perceived evils, President Vējonis chose to invite KPV candidate Aldis Gobzems to try his chances at forming a coalition.
Second Attempt: The Populists
KPV (Kam Pieder Valsts? or “To Whom Belongs the State?”) is the Latvian version of the anti-establishment movements that have emerged in Europe and the U.S. over the past few years. Founded in 2016 by Latvian actor and radio host Artuss Kaimiņš, KPV has reached voters who suffered after Latvia’s post-2009 economic crisis. At the same time, KPV has not only introduced Trump-style anti-establishment rhetoric in Latvian politics, but it has also replicated his attacks on journalists. Members of KPV have repeatedly clashed with news media, calling them liars and fake news.
The nomination of Gobzems threw the country into a bizarre two-week rollercoaster ride that resulted in a complete failure of his projects and an internal fracture of KPV. The question of Farmers and Greens was crucial once again, as not only the conservatives but also KPV leader Artuss Kaimiņš opposed including them in the government. As one potential partner after another left the negotiation table, Gobzems proposed a government of “professionals” that would not involve political parties. Unimpressed by this idea, President Vejonis revoked his invitation to Gobzems. Two months after the elections, the country was facing three possibilities: emergency elections, a nonpartisan Prime Minister, or a Prime Minister from liberal Attīstībai Par!
The Liberal Move
The 12.04% of votes obtained by Attīstībai Par! was one of the biggest surprises of the elections. Pre-election polls showed this joint list of three smaller liberal-oriented parties struggling to pass the 5% threshold required to enter the parliament. It seemed that in Latvia’s national conservative political environment it was politically unwise to show too much support for LGBT rights, gender equality, or intensified dialogue with the Russian-speaking minority. However, the willingness of Attīstībai Par! to take the risk paid off: the party obtained slightly more votes and the same number of seats (13) as the nationalists, becoming the first party to enter the Saeima on a liberal progressive agenda.
After the conservative and populist failure to form a government, it seemed that the liberals’ big chance had come. However, to everybody’s surprise, the potential Prime Minister from Attīstībai Par!, Artis Pabriks, withdrew his candidacy, and the party announced its willingness to work in a government led by Unity. This unexpected move seems to be driven by the interest of the country as well as the interests of the party. If Attīstībai Par! tried and failed to form a government, then there would be new, emergency elections. If, however, Attīstībai Par! wanted to win conservative partners, it would have to make important compromises on its progressive agenda, which would have alienated its base only months before European elections. As a result, Unity—a party that had obtained only 6% of votes—suddenly found itself in a position to lead yet another government.
The Return of Unity
Unity’s story is one of the strangest in Latvia’s political history. The center-right party emerged in 2010 as an alliance of smaller center-right parties, with a clear anti-corruption agenda. It amazed Europe’s political commentators by managing to apply extremely harsh austerity measures and still maintain high ratings in the years after the 2009 economic crash. By 2016, the party, however, was weakened by internal struggles and had lost influence to rival Farmers and Greens. Unity’s ratings were very low before the 2018 election, and the party seemed set to lose its remaining relevance in Latvian politics. Those who had supported the party because of its anti-corruption discourse moved toward the New Conservatives, while those who had seen Unity as the only force resisting Europe’s illiberal wave were shifting toward Attīstībai Par!. It turned out, however, that Unity still had two important assets: professional, experienced pro-European politicians, and a capacity to be a unifying force in Latvian politics. National-conservative, but not illiberal, it could find common ground with both nationalists and liberals. Unwilling to alienate New Conservatives, it ceded to their demands and picked KPV over Farmers and Greens.
In a strange turn of events, the possibility to enter a government led by Unity accentuated KPV internal divisions. Five out of 16 KPV parliamentarians did not vote for the Kariņš government, and Gobzems was expelled from the party. The split of the populist party was accompanied by a series of anecdotic events such as Gobzems’ promise to “legally” take power in Latvia and his call for “patriotic officers” to join him. While to some, these announcements seemed like a remote parody of 1934 authoritarian coup, others were left wondering how close Latvia would have been to an important crisis if KPV had managed to form a government.
The New Government
Latvia’s new government resembles a fantastic beast called Pushmi-pullyu, from British children books about Doctor Doolittle. A cross of gazelle and unicorn, the animal has two heads situated at the opposite sides of the body. The Kariņš government has assembled parties that either have opposite ideologies and opposite goals (Attīstībai Par! and National Alliance) or have traded bitter insults in the period before the elections (National Alliance vs. the New Conservative Party, and KPV vs. everybody).
This, of course, is not the first, and most likely not the last, Pushmi-pullyu government, in Latvia’s history. Latvia’s 1922 Constitution was written almost 100 years ago with the aim of not allowing a single political force or individual to dominate the country. The electoral system allows the existence of a relatively large number of small political forces. These two factors push parties toward uneasy compromises. At the same time, this obligation to “put all the disagreements aside” after the elections blurs the ideological differences and gives voters the feeling that their choices have little relevance. As noted by one recent report, the lack of ideas in politics is one of the greatest weaknesses of the Latvian system. A government that includes a party with far-right elements in its ranks and a party that claims to champion tolerance and individual rights reinforces the feeling that ideological debates are secondary.
At the same time, these grand compromises that are forced upon the political parties might be the Latvian remedy to nationalist and populist waves crashing over European and American politics. If no party can impose its agenda, the country is relatively safe from Polish or Hungarian scenarios. Multiple coalition partners and the presence of Attīstībai Par! will allow Unity to avoid a situation like in 2013 when, while engaged in a three-party collation, it found itself hostage to nationalist demands. The absence of Farmers and Greens in the new government, due mostly to the conservatives’ determination to stick to their pre-election promises, will accelerate the slow but steady decrease of oligarchic influences.
While the chances of Pushmi-pullyu to achieve substantial domestic reforms are open to debate, Latvia’s foreign policy prospects look as bright as ever. With a former European Parliament deputy and U.S.-born Latvian Krišjānis Kariņš as Prime Minister, with Edgars Rinkēvičs, the longest serving Foreign Minister in Latvia’s history, re-assuming the office, and with Artis Pabriks, a former European Parliament deputy and former Defense Minister, returning at the Defense, Latvia stands strongly on its pro-European and pro-NATO track. This continuity in the country’s foreign policy, despite bitter domestic disputes, highlights the fact that Latvia’s Western orientation is the core of the country’s post-1991 development.