05/10/2002 - Analysis
Two months before the Copenhagen European Council (12th and 13th December) during which the Fifteen member States are to decide which countries will integrate the EU from 2004 onwards, the Latvians are to elect their 8th Saeima (Parliament). Since independence that was won by referendum on 3rd March 1991 the country has been suffering from chronic political instability; in eleven years Latvia has witnessed no less than 9 different governments, that have always been centre-right coalitions. Economically the Baltic Republic can be proud of its respectable results in spite of some major problems. Another major and primordial issue for the country's stability is the integration of the Russian minority (30.2% of the population) who cannot take part in the coming election on 5th October since they do not have Latvian nationality.
The Latvian Political System
Every four years on the first Saturday in October Latvians elect the 100 members of the Saeima, the single house in their Parliament, by proportional vote,. During this general election Latvia is divided into five electoral constituencies: Riga, Vidzeme, Latgale, Zemgale and Kurzeme. On the 5th October the central elections' Commission has just decided that the district of the capital Riga will elect 28 of the 100 Saeima members, Vidzeme will elect 26, Latgale, 17 and Zemgale, 15, finally the district of Kurzeme will elect 14. All candidate lists must win a minimum of 5 of the votes cast to be represented in Saeima.
Six political groups are represented in the present Parliament:
The Peoples' Party (TP), majority centre-right group formation,
The Latvian Voice (LC), lying centre-right, for a long time the dominating party on the Latvian political scene (the Latvian Voice participated in all the governments since its founding in 1993), at present losing ground slightly,
The Union for the Homeland and Freedom, (TB/LNNK), a rightwing nationalist party founded in 1988 to counter the Russian occupation of Latvia,
The National Harmony Party (TSP), lying to the left on the political scale, successor to the Communist Party of the Soviet period,
Social Democrat Workers Party (LSDA), a leftwing group,
The New Party, founded in 1998 by a composer and former culture minister.
Since 5th May 2000 the government has been led by Andris Berzins and is supported by four parties: the People's Party, the Latvian Voice (to which the Prime Minister belongs), the Union for the Homeland and Freedom as well as the New Fraction (a party created after the change of name from the New Party which became the New Christian Party).
The President of the Republic is elected by Parliament every four years. Since 1999 this function has been occupied by Ms Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the first woman President in Eastern Europe, a brilliant academic who had emigrated to Canada, and who gained the latter's nationality before returning home. She enjoys limited powers: she appoints the Prime Minister (with Parliament's agreement) and signs the laws, that the President may send back to Parliament for either amendment or revision. But she is very popular. Ms Vaira Vike-Freiberga works hard to promote her country abroad and since 1999 she has asserted herself as a true spokeswoman for Latvia's foreign policy. She enjoys great moral authority in Latvia.
Latvia is particularly subject to government crises. After the elections in 1998 no less than three months of talks were necessary between the various parties to create a new government. It comprised a minority and only lasted one year. In 1999, Andris Skele (People's Party) became Prime Minister of a conservative and liberal government before finally resigning in April 2000 after a disagreement between his coalition members on privatisation procedures - he was followed by Andris Berzins (Latvian Voice), who was, at the time, mayor of Riga the capital, who created a centre right government.
The Election Stakes
Since independence the Latvian governments have worked towards restoring democracy and transforming the interventionist economy into a market economy. The main objective of this has been to facilitate the country's entry into the European Union and NATO as rapidly as possible. Entry to both of these bodies still comprise the main points on the Latvian political agenda.
Even though the MP's clearly demonstrate what they want, what can be said of the population? A referendum might well take place next year on Latvia's entry into the EU, but the latest major survey on the subject undertaken in February 2002 by the pollster Latvias Fatki reveals a distinct contrast between the political elite and the voters. Indeed support for Europe is suffering a regular decrease amongst the population: 36% of Latvians say they are in favour of their country joining the Fifteen (against 37.6% in May 2001, 41.52% in February 2001 and 43.5% in February 2000), 43% say they would vote against if there was a referendum. Political analysts explain this loss of enthusiasm for Europe by the planned drop in agricultural subsidies when Latvia enters the Union as well as a lack of confidence in all the country's political figures - except of course for the President, Ms Vaira Vike-Freiberga. A majority of Latvians support their entry into NATO however. According to a survey undertaken by Latvias Fatki in August 2002, 66% of those interviewed say they were in favour of Latvia entering the transatlantic organisation against 63% in February 2002.
Latvia's past can explain this reticence in part. The last "Union" to which it was obliged to belong was the Soviet Union that relentlessly denied Latvian cultural and national identity and which today is the very symbol of that liberty regained! But Latvians feel European and would like to draw closer to the Democracies of Europe.
Latvia enjoys the best economic trends with a dynamic growth of 7.6% in 2001, the biggest of all the candidate countries to the EU; one of the lowest inflation rates in Eastern and Central Europe (3%) ; an unemployment rate at 7.7% ; export revenues are up by 7.4% in 2002. Nevertheless the country suffers from an endemic problem that it has not managed to rid itself of - corruption (Latvia was ranked second to last amongst the candidate countries for the EU in terms of corruption by Transparency International). A "Mr Anti-corruption" was appointed by the Government on September 3rd. After months of looking for the ideal candidate, Jani Jonass, a former top ranking civil servant from the Justice Ministry was selected to put an end to the plague that is rotting the country.
Another major stake in Latvian politics is the status of the Russian minority that comprises 30.2% of the 2.5 million inhabitants according to the 1999 census. Latvia has the largest Russian minority of the three Baltic States; Latvians only represent 56.7% of the country's population. In addition to this only 1.4 million inhabitants speak Latvian. The Russian minority is particularly big in the towns representing the majority in seven of the eight largest cities in the country. On independence only the Baltic Republic's inhabitants from before World War II and their descendants were allowed to become Latvian citizens. The Russian minority therefore found itself without a nationality. They had to wait until 1994 before an initial law allowed some of them to ask for Latvian nationality. Gaining Latvian nationality is not easy: the financial investment is high and it is indispensable to have not only a good knowledge of the language, but also of the country's history, culture and Constitution. In 1998 under international pressure the citizenship law was amended more in favour of those wishing to acquire Latvian nationality. Again last May the Government had to amend the law that required fluent Latvian of anyone who wanted to become a civil servant and in June a campaign was launched to promote naturalisation. Today, 42.2% of the Russians who live in Latvia are now Latvian citizens. 52,000 of them gained nationality over the last 7 years, 11,000 in 2001 alone. The Russian population now seems to be more in favour of acquiring Latvian nationality that could very well be synonymous to European nationality in just a few years time.
The general elections on 5th October should not create any real turbulence on the Latvian political scene. However it is imperative for the Baltic Republic's government to win back the population's confidence to continue on the road to economic recovery and to European integration. This is both a heavy and yet exhilarating mission for a country that 11 years after independence, is experiencing one of the most promising eras of its turbulent history.
Summary of the General Election results of 3rd October 1998:
Participation : 71.9%
Source : Le Courrier des pays de l'Est, Europe centrale et orientale 2000-2001, Vers l'intégration européenne et régionale, n° 1 016, juin-juillet 2001, Paris, La Documentation Française, 2001