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A nation must think before it acts.
Among the numerous casualties of the 2022 Latvian elections was the liberal upstart Development/For! (Attīstībai/Par!) electoral alliance. It entered the Saeima in 2018 promising an ambitious slate of social reforms. In the October 2022 parliamentary elections, Development/For! lost all their seats, barely missing the 5% cut-off. Four years of governing in the midst of a pandemic and cabinet infighting eroded much of the alliance’s voter base. This pattern — rise, underwhelm, fall — repeats across the democratic world as liberal parties buoyed by the previous decade’s anti-establishment upheaval struggle to deliver on their promises.
An Alliance Forms
Development/For! was an established, but marginal player when it entered parliament in 2018. It remains an alliance of principally two parties: For Latvia’s Development (Latvijas attīstībai) and Movement For! (Kustība Par!). Former Prime Minister Einars Repše founded For Latvia’s Development in 2013. He is widely considered the author of Latvia’s 1990s currency reform, which after a period of austerity helped the country create a thriving business sector and one of the world’s most valuable currencies. Repše ostensibly wanted to ensure no one undid his economic legacy. In a press release issued Dec. 12, 2013, he accused the country’s leadership of “damaging the micro-business tax regime” and hoped the new party would “bring many young and capable people into politics.” In the face of pervasive corruption and fiscal stagnation, an assertively pro-reform party spoke to the public’s deepest-held fears. In an August 2014 survey, 50.7% of Latvians listed rising prices, unemployment, or taxation as their primary concerns.
While For Latvia’s Development enjoyed high-profile leadership and a ready-made policy platform, Movement For! was a relatively new political player, having been established by several members of the ruling Unity Party in 2017. Like For Latvia’s Development, Movement For! supported the free market and vigorously condemned corruption. Movement For! differed from For Latvia’s Development in its outspoken advocacy of social progressivism. When the two parties united in 2018, candidate Lolita Čigāne explained the Development/For! alliance platform, including cooperation on issues like, “the Istanbul Convention [on combating violence against women], regulation of partnership relations, questions on donor eggs, acknowledging that the new association will first of all be socially liberal.” For Latvia’s Development is unambiguously liberal, but it emphasizes classical (often economic) — not social — liberalism. The addition of Movement For! reinforced the organization’s economic and social liberalism, as the 2018 alliance agreement suggested.
Smooth Sailing at First
Initially, the alliance appeared to do well. A year after Emmanuel Macron upended French politics with On the Move (En Marche) and Citizens (Ciudadanos) appeared to supplant the Spanish center-right, in Latvia Development/For! earned fourth place in the 2018 parliamentary elections with 12% of the vote and 13 seats. In a divided Saeima with fears that populists would take power, the liberal alliance became a central figure in Latvia’s cabinet drama. They gained the defence, interior, environment and health ministries under New Unity’s Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš.
Development/For! found itself in the spotlight when it attempted to defend LGBT rights. This was the alliance’s longstanding concern: Member Juris Pūce created a petition in 2015 calling for partnership legislation that would have expanded the rights afforded to cohabiting couples. After Development/For! entered the Saiema, it introduced a bill permitting cohabitation alongside the prime minister’s New Unity party. The bill failed. Several years later, on Jan. 7, 2021, coalition partner National Alliance (Nacionālā Apvienība), a far-right party, introduced a bill amending the constitution to exclude same-sex couples from legal family status. This occurred even as an SKDS survey from the same year found that “55% of respondents answered that they have neutral attitudes towards homosexual people, almost 20% responded that they are in support.” Development/For! launched a campaign against NA’s proposed legislation, condemning it as unproductive and discriminatory. In May, when the Saiema accepted the legislation, Interior Minister Marija Golubeva (Development/For!), the second openly LGBT member of the Saeima, said, “I think that the excuse that society is not ready is no longer valid, because society is growing up and society is ready.” She was proven correct the following year when the country’s Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had family rights. While initially unsuccessful, Development/For!’s work to codify LGBT rights highlighted growing support for liberal values and desire for an alternative to the center-right establishment that had governed Latvia since regaining independence.
Success came with Development/For!’s surprise victory in the Riga municipal elections. The Russophilic Social Democratic Party “Harmony” (Saskaņa) governed the capital city from 2010 to 2019. That year, Mayor Nils Ušakovs was removed from his post by the central government over a corruption investigation into a Riga transit contract. Harmony struggled in the aftermath, pulling away support from former Ušakovs ally Oļegs Burovs, who replaced Ušakovs as mayor. Harmony’s downfall was reflected in the polling. Development/For! ran an aggressive campaign promising to overhaul Riga’s aging public services and avoid the ethnic politics that characterized Harmony’s electoral style. This scandal resulted in snap elections for the Riga city council in August 2020. In the last polls before voting began, Development/For! held an 8.2-point lead over Harmony. That month, the city elections ushered in a Development/For!-led government, headed by technocrat Martiņš Staķis. Staķis portrayed himself as an accountable figure, and his electoral alliance worked hard to connect with Russian-speaking residents. The party followed up its Riga victory with pluralities in four municipalities in 2021 municipal elections. The party not only appeared to be capable of defeating Harmony — something none of the established parties managed to do — it also built support nationwide on a liberal, pro-reform message that resonated with a jaded public.
Despite remaining popular into 2021, Development/For! began encountering difficulties soon after entering the coalition. As the only liberal party in the Saiema, and only the fourth-largest out of seven parties, its ability to drive debate and register its opinion fluctuated. This became evident in the 2019 presidential election where the alliance prevaricated over supporting Egils Levits (a judge of the European Court of Justice and former deputy prime minister and minister of justice), who enjoyed backing from the coalition leader, Unity. Development/For! even considered running a competing candidate to present a progressive option. Chairman Daniels Pavļuts said, “We are the only liberal party in the Saeima. Who could put forward, let’s say, a candidate who symbolizes liberal values except us? I don’t see anyone else who could do it.” Such ideological divisions between the coalition parties made governing challenging, and endangered projects Development/For! hoped to implement, like urban development and energy security.
A year later, several ministerial resignations shook the Development/For! alliance. The first and most prominent resignation occurred in November 2020 when Environment Minister Juris Pūce resigned from the government over using a Riga City Council parking permit despite no longer serving there. Pūce’s resignation came after leading the efforts to institute controversial administrative-territorial reform. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic likewise challenged Development/For! ministers. In January 2021, Health Minister Ilze Viņķele stepped down after Prime Minister Kariņš criticized her vaccine rollout plan. “I have been patiently waiting for three government meetings, for this [vaccination] plan,” said the prime minister, even though vaccines began arriving in December 2020 and immunization proceeded apace. Viņķele was initially cleared of inaction by the courts, but on September 15, proceedings began against Viņķele in Riga’s Vidzeme Suburb Court. The case is ongoing.
The third and most recent resignation occurred in 2022 when Marija Golubeva left the cabinet in response to her ministry’s handling of protesters at the Soviet-era Victory monument in Riga. This spring, the Saeima approved legislative amendments, effectively halting plans for Soviet Victory Day commemorations held annually on May 9 at the monument. Many still came to lay flowers marking the day, but Riga officials had them removed the night between May 9 and 10. In response, several hundred people came the following day to protest the action, followed by counter protesters. At the end of the day, some people became aggressive, necessitating police intervention. Because Golubeva did not prevent the protests or other expressions of pro-Russian sentiment, members of the National Alliance party demanded her removal from office. The interior minister defended her conduct, saying the protests were spontaneous and that public safety was paramount in the police’s decision to delay reacting to the protesters. In order to preserve the governing coalition, Prime Minister Kariņš requested her resignation. Golubeva is one of the most prominent mainstream Russophone politicians in Latvia since independence was restored in 1991. Golubeva’s presence in the Kariņš cabinet signalled its openness and her party’s determination to form a cross-community electorate, but her departure five months before the parliamentary elections marked a further blow to Development/For’s effectiveness in coalition.
Dissatisfaction with the alliance grew among its leaders and voters. Riga Mayor Staķis left the alliance in 2022, becoming an independent. His victory in 2020 propelled Development/For! to stardom, and his departure weakened the alliance’s position. Further trouble arose with the growth of the Progressives (Progresīvie). The Progressives, a social-democratic party with unmistakeably green and left-wing economic values, offered young people a sharper alternative to the center-right status quo than the free-market Development/For! Alliance. The Progressives’ reform and anti-corruption credentials were also strong — Riga electoral district candidate Antoņina Ņenaševa (an ethnic Russian) said, “We specifically said no to [working with] ZZS [Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, Farmers’ and Greens Union] and Harmony, both with their dirty money and with their pro-Kremlin direction.” Young, left-leaning Latvians thus had an uncompromising and progressive option in the 2022 elections.
The result was a collapse in the Development/For! alliance vote-share. The alliance earned only 4.97% of the vote. While just shy of the 5% threshold needed to enter the Saiema, the party retained less than half of its 2018 vote and therefore lost all of its seats. The Progressives conversely enjoyed modest success: after earning 2.6% in 2018, the party earned 6.1% in 2022. Pre-election polling indicates that most Development/For! voters prefered the Progressives (22%) and New Unity (17%) as their second choice. Conversely, 22% of Progressives voters listed Development/For! as their second choice and 29% of New Unity voters did likewise. The three parties thus shared a voter base. It can be inferred that the Progressives and New Unity together pulled apart Development/For’s base. The Progressives appealed to the alliance’s left wing, and New Unity urged a united front against populists and pro-Kremlin forces. This was evident in the alliance’s loss of its voter base in the capital Riga — a region with upwardly-mobile young people. In 2018, Development/For! earned second place (13.4%) but slid to 12th place (3.9%) in 2022. New Unity’s Riga vote share rose from 6.7% to 20.6% in the same time, and the Progressives went from 3.4% of the vote to 9%. Thus New Unity’s seat increase and the Progressives’ 10 seats came partly at Development/For’s expense.
The Development/For! alliance’s stunning rise and equally sudden implosion bears lessons for other European liberals trying to navigate the present political environment. The most crucial lesson is not overpromising change only to become fettered by coalition agreements with less progressive partners. Development/For! presented itself as “the only alternative to the existing government coalition,” but ultimately joined it. Receiving challenging, controversial ministerial portfolios — like Viņķele in the Health ministry or Pūce as environment minister — meant that the alliance bore the brunt of difficult decisions. The second lesson from Development/For’s setback is the importance of maintaining a distinctive ideological position in government. Their ideological similarity to New Unity meant that voters gravitated to the prime minister’s party, eroding the alliance’s vote share. The 2022 Saiema election statistics showed that Development/For! lost votes to the center-right and center-left by succumbing to coalition politics. Given Development/For! had its origins in Unity, both factions competed for similar voters. The result was the Development/For! alliance’s sound electoral defeat.
Similar fates befell French and Spanish liberals from 2018 on. France’s On the Move party promised a rejuvenized France and “moralization of public life,” only for its leader President Emmanuel Macron to shift rightward at the end of his first term. Likewise, Spain’s Citizens party lost its bid for control of the right. Buoyed by its 2016-2017 successes, it challenged the main opposition People’s Party (Partido Popular), with which it shared ideological roots, and far-right newcomer Vox, Spain’s third-largest party. The latter’s influence in Spanish politics is sufficiently strong to drive some Citizens leaders towards the hard right. When some regional party leaders broke with the People’s Party and backed the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) in coalition, it simply added to Citizens’ weakening position. Liberals, like any political movement, need a coherent, organized platform to win power.
Development/For! did not lose its parliamentary representation because of its ideology or unpopularity. It gauged the 2018 Latvian public’s mood correctly and promised an end to “government as usual.” During the intervening years, however, the alliance struggled to maintain ideological and political cohesiveness — swallowed up by bigger coalition partners and extra-parliamentary rivals. It handled difficult portfolios well — the country has recovered from the pandemic and remains a liberal democracy — but the costs of coalition meant the alliance’s efforts went unrewarded. Development/For! is locked out of national politics for the foreseeable future, but its time in government provides a lesson for European liberals seeking to carve out a distinctive place in the political arena.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.