05/10/2002 - D-7
Just a few days before the election the results are far from being clear since none of the parties is forecast to win an outright majority. The latest enquiry undertaken by the pollster Latvias Fakti between 13th and 22nd September gives the New Era Party the leading edge. This party was created recently by Einars Repse the former governor of the Latvian Central Bank. The movement is due to win 15.4% of the vote. It is followed by the People's Party (TP) that is bound to win 14.1%. It is not at all sure that with 5.5% of the intention to vote Andris Berzins, the Prime Minister's Latvian Voice will go beyond the 5% mark necessary to gain a position in Parliament and is forecast to come only sixth. According to the pollster SKDS, the People's Party should win the election with 18.7% of the vote followed by the New Era Party (16%). In third place is the movement "For the defence of human rights in a united Latvia" with 10,2% of the intention to vote followed by the Farmers' Union and the Greens (ZSS) with 9.4% and the Latvian Voice 5.5%. The Union for the Mother Country and Freedom (TB/LNNK) and the Social Democratic Workers' Party (LSDA) come below the 5% mark and are forecast to win 4.7% and 4% respectively. It should be noted that 53.4% of Latvians say they find the electoral campaign of little interest. As a comparison 38.8% of them said they were not interested in the campaign a month before the vote during the last elections in 1998.
Corruption comprises the main theme of the electoral campaign. Although the government coalition parties are in a position to demonstrate very honourable results in economic terms they are having difficulties in answering Einars Repse's tough anti-corruption arguments; he is one of the rare people to enjoy an image of honesty amongst the Latvian people. As in many Central and Eastern European countries the national elections have given rise to new political movements. In 1995, Ziedonis Cevers founded the Democratic Party just a few months before the election - its programme planned to do away with organised crime within three months; in 1998 Andris Skele, the former Prime Minister, created the People's Party (TP). Today it is Einars Repse's New Era Party that is the favourite in the general election on 5th October.
Integration into the European Union is not a major theme in the campaign. None of the parties has addressed it clearly. It is true that according to the most recent surveys only one third of the Latvians say they are in favour of joining the Fifteen; 43% say they would vote against integration if there was a referendum. The planned decrease in agricultural aid on Latvia's entry into the Union and in particular the memories of a difficult past they experienced within another "Union" (even though there can be no comparison between the Fifteen and the ex-Soviet Union) are the main reasons put forward to explain the fears of the Latvian people vis-à-vis Europe. "People wonder whether they'll be treated equally in the Union or whether they are being offered a type of neo-colonialism. We're not asking for charity : Latvian farmers ask for nothing more than equal treatment," declared Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President of the Latvian Republic two weeks ago. At the beginning of September Franz Fischler, European Commissioner for Agriculture went to the Baltic Countries where he promised not to enforce a reduction in their agricultural production on joining the European Union. "We are ready to show that we can flexible in terms of quotas," he said. It should be pointed out however that the Baltic Republics would not be entitled to more help than that offered by the Union ie 25% of the amount granted to farmers in the Fifteen during the first year after entry. Farmers would however enjoy other types of financial support in addition these subsidies (loans to farmers experiencing problems for example). In spite of the commitments undertaken by the European Commissioner agriculture is still the main difficulty in the present negotiations about enlargement. The Farmers' Union and the Greens (ZSS), the only openly Eurosceptic movement in this Latvian general election, is gaining ground in the opinion polls. The party is demanding an increase in the subsidies granted to farmers and a postponement of Latvia's entry into the European Union. Vaira-Vike-Freiberga, who is very active in the domain of foreign policy and firmly pro-European, is quite aware of the lack of Latvian enthusiasm vis-à-vis Europe. "Our government will have to work quite seriously towards presenting the Latvians with a clear explanation of the advantages and the costs of joining," she said recently.
Relations between the Russian minority and the Latvian population are taking a low profile in the candidates' presentations, which is the opposite from events during the last electoral campaigns. The reform of the education system - and mainly the enforcement of Latvian as the main teaching language in all schools across the country - is just as controversial a subject amongst the politicians as it is amongst the Russian minority. Half of Russian parents say they are in favour of this proposed law that is to take effect in 2004, the other half are opposed to it and demand a true minority status. Because of this Latvia is the only candidate country for entry to the European Union not to have ratified the Convention for the protection of national minorities, and this is obligatory within the framework of the Council of Europe. Just a few months from the Council of Europe in Copenhagen where the decision will be taken which countries from Central and Eastern Europe will join the European Union, the question has been raised once more. However in order to ratify this convention Latvian Parliament must reach an agreement on the definition of the concept of a minority and amend several of the laws employed in the country.
In terms of domestic policies on 19th September Parliament totally rejected the government's appointment of Janis Jonass as "Mr Anti-Corruption". Only five of the hundred members of the Saeima voted in favour. Apparently the parliamentary representatives are to elect Guntis Rutkis, head of Latvian domestic security, as a replacement.
Although the elections on 5th October are not bound to create great changes in Latvian political life - the performance of the centre right parties in power at present will bear witness to the confidence that the voters have in their political elite. It will be particularly interesting to analyse this with the referendum on joining the European Union coming up next year.