08/09/2006 - Analysis
On 7th October next, on the first Saturday in October as planned for in the Constitution, Latvians will be called to vote in the 100 members of the Saeima, the only chamber of their Parliament.
19 parties or political alliances (one less than in the previous general election on 5th October 2002), representing around 40 parties and a total of 1025 candidates including 269 women are running in the election.
For the first time in Latvia no new party will be standing and no new leader will be running as the "Messiah". In 2002 the former governor of the Central Bank, Einars Repse, founder of New Era (JL) played this role and his party won with 23.98% of the vote winning 26 seats of the 100 available in the Saeima. In the same year the First Party of Latvia (LPP) was also created by Ainars Slesers. Four years before that the saviour's role had been played by Andris Skele, founder of the People's Party (TP); in 1995 it was the Popular Movement for Latvia led by Joachim Siegerist elected to the Saeima without being able to speak a word of Latvian after campaigning against corruption of the political community and in 1993 it was Latvia's Way (LC) which played this role.
Political analysts fear that voters will shy from the ballot on 7th October because of the lack of new parties and therefore the absence of anyone able to win protest votes due to the political scandals experienced by the country over the last few months (Aivars Lemberg, mayor of Ventspils has been accused of corruption and money laundering in transactions which took place between 1993 and 1995; Transport Minister Ainars Slesers (LPP) former Prime Minister and Andris Skele founder of the People's Party, have come under suspicion for electoral fraud during the local elections on March 13th 2005 in Jurmala). "The existing parties have recently shown such contempt for public opinion that people who usually voted for them might think twice before doing so again," maintains political analyst Gatis Purins.
The Political System
The 100 members of the Saeima are elected for four years (since 1998) by proportional voting according to the Sainte Lagüe method. All political parties have to win at least 5% of the vote in order to be represented in Parliament. In general elections Latvia is divided into five electoral districts: Riga, Vidzeme, Latgale, Zemgale and Kurzeme.
6 political parties are represented in the Saeima at present:
- New Era (JL), the majority centre-right party led by former Education and Science Minister, Karlis Sadurski, with 26 MPs;
- For Human Rights in a United Lativa (PVTCL) a party that lies to the left of the political scale, defender of the Russian speaking minority jointly led by MEP Tatiana Zdanoka and Jakovs Pliners, with 25 MPs;
- The People's Party (TP), a centre-right party of the present Prime Minister Aigars Kaltivis, led by Atis Slakteris, with 20 seats;
- The Farmers' Union and the Greens (ZZS), a centre right party led by Augusts Brigmanis has 12 MPs;
- The First Party of Latvia (LPP), a conservative party nicknamed "the priests' party" because of the number of clergy amongst the founders –is led by Ainars Slesers, with 10 MPs;
- For the Fatherland and Freedom (TB/LNNK), a nationalist party founded in 1988 to fight against the Russian occupation of Latvia is led by Janis Straume and has 7 seats.
The President of the Republic is elected by the 100 members of the Saiema every four years. Since June 1999 this position has been occupied by Vaira Vike-Freiberga (re-elected on 20th June 2003 by 98 votes versus 6). The President who has little power does however have great moral authority over the country.
After the last general elections on 5th October 2002 Einars Repse (JL) formed a coalition government with the First Party of Latvia (LPP), the Farmers' Union and the Greens (ZZS) and the For the Fatherland and Freedom Union (TB/LNNK). On 28th January 2004, the First Party of Latvia (LPP) left the government leaving the Prime Minister without a majority. On 20th February 2004 Indulis Emsis (ZZS) became the head of government comprising the People's Party, the First Party of Latvia and the Farmers' Union and the Greens. This coalition lasted less than a year and on 24th November Aigars Kalvitis (TP) succeeded Indulis Emsis as Prime Minister.
A permanent and major political stake in Latvia is the status of the country's 420,000 inhabitants (representing around 18% of the population) who do not have Latvian nationality and since they are not citizens of any other country find themselves without a nationality at all. Most of them have a "non-citizen's" passport. This status gives them the right to live in the country and access to the social services in the same way as any other Latvian citizen. The "non-citizens" are not however allowed to vote in the national or local elections or to work for the police or the army. In addition to this some States which do not require a visa from Latvians demand one from these "non-citizens".
When independence was declared on 21st August 1991 only the inhabitants who had been Latvian citizens before the Second World War and their descendants became Latvians. Many people who came to live in Latvia during the Soviet occupation found themselves without a nationality. They had to wait until 1994 for a first law to allow them to request Latvia nationality by naturalisation. In 1998, after long rounds of debate a new law on citizenship was adopted and replaced the one preceding it four years earlier. But gaining Latvia citizenship is still a difficult task: a minimum of five year's residence is required likewise good knowledge of the Latvian language, the country's history, culture and Constitution. Finally any new citizens must swear an oath and give up their former nationality. In November 2005 around 109,000 people asked for Latvian nationality, now a synonym for European citizenship, 103,000 achieved their goal.
We should note that on 1st July 1995 Latvia granted any person who had been forced to leave their country during the Soviet or Nazi occupation the chance to retain the nationality they had gained in their host country in addition to Latvian citizenship.
Latvia has the biggest Russian speaking minority of the three Baltic States. According to official figures dating from July 2004 "original Latvians" represented 58.7% of the population and the "Russians", 28.8%. 58.2% of inhabitants speak Latvian as their mother tongue, 37.5% Russian. The Russian speaking minority finds itself in the majority in seven of the country's eight major towns.
The Electoral Stakes
According to political analyst Janis Ikstens, professor at the University of Vidzeme of Valmiera, each political party in Latvia represents the interests of a particular social group. Although the country's political landscape cannot be divided easily into left and right it is however frequent to see the difference between the "parties defending the Latvians and those defending the Slavs of which the Russian speaking party is only one representative".
The "Latvian" parties are all in favour of a market economy, European integration and to a greater or lesser extent they want to reduce taxes. The differences between them lie essentially in the issues on which they have chosen to focus their campaign.
Hence New Era (JL) has chosen the motto "Honesty and Well-Being" but its campaign focuses primarily on the first word and notably on the fight against corruption. The party that was created by the former Central Bank governor Einars Repse takes up the themes that made it successful during the last elections in 2002.
The People's Party (TP), which defines itself as the "leader of the right" and whose motto is "Vote for those who act!", represents the interests of entrepreneurs and focuses less on social issues.
The Farmers' Union and the Greens (ZZS), which has received a variety of people on its list do not have a clear line of campaign since often the party's leaders disagree with one another. The party which claims to be centre right does have the image of a party defending farmers and those living in rural areas – this is an issue on which is still concentrates. The party is campaigning under the banner of "To live in a prosperous Latvia."
For the Fatherland and Freedom (TB/LNNK) is fighting for the defence of Latvian identity; it is still an extremely nationalist party that would like to amend the present law on citizenship. But the programme written by MEP and candidate for the position of Prime Minister, Roberts Zile is also very social planning for a decrease in income tax and a rise in retirement pensions and family allowance.
The conservatives of the First Party of Latvia (LPP) defend family values and violently opposed the holding of Gay Pride in Riga on 22nd July last. The party which defends a liberal economy (it is in favour of establishing a single taxation rate of 15% for VAT, income tax and company tax), also puts forward a social programme in which feature an increase in civil servants' salaries as well as a decrease in taxation. Nevertheless the recent alliance by the First Party of Latvia with Latvia's Way, a centre right party that dominated Latvian political life for a long time (Latvia's Way took part in all of the governments between 1993 the year it was founded until 2002) now makes it harder to perceive its position on the political scale.
Amongst the "Russian speaking" parties or those defending the Slavs, For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PVTCL) is fighting for the definition of a particular status for the Russian language and is against proposals to restrict naturalisation. The party would like Russian to be acknowledged as an official language in the municipalities where it is the mother tongue of more than 20% of the inhabitants and for it to be employed in higher education and the legal system. "It was decided upon a long time ago. Latvian is the country's official language and this issue is no long on the agenda", repeats Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis. The PVTCL also has an extremely social programme. It proposes, in quite an unrealistic programme, both an increase State spending (abolition of VAT on basic goods, an increase in retirement pensions and the minimum wage etc...) as well as a reduction in taxes. When questioned on the funding of such measures they favour giving up some major ongoing projects as well as a reduction in defence expenditure, its leaders saying that the money would be provided by European funds. Reducing defence expenditure is however impossible since Latvia joined NATO obliging it to dedicate 2% of its GDP to defence. "Our party offers voters a true alternative to the political parties on the right who over the past fifteen years have made Latvia an ethnic, corrupt State", maintains form representative of the Supreme Council of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia (1990-1993) and present MEP Tatiana Zdanoka. We should note that the latter, declared ineligible in 1998 for having "taken part in the activities of the Communist Party of Latvia after 13th January 1991" was exceptionally allowed to stand in the European elections of June 2004 after a decision by the Saeima taken in January 2004.
The direct competitor of the PVTCL, the Harmony Centre (SC), successor to the Communist Party of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia, led by Nils Usakovs, a former journalist for the First Baltic Channel tries to be slightly more moderate. The party says it is in favour of establishing a specific status for the Russian language and for schools which receive children from the minorities to be able to choose the language in which they teach. It would like to raise the minimum wage, reduce income tax and is suggesting that the State abandon some major projects such as for example the construction of the national library and several regional concert halls.
For Human Rights in a United Latvia, and the Harmony Centre will share the votes of most of the Russian speakers in the general elections on 7th October.
Led by Guntars Jirgensons, the Social Democratic Workers' Party (LSDSP) is trying to mobilise the unions and the Federation for Pensioners and to co-operate with regional parties. The party has allied itself in these elections with the Labour Party (DP) led by Aivars Kreituss, the Christian Democrat Union (KDS) and the regional party, Light of Latgale (LG). The presence of regional parties in the national elections is an all time first in Latvia. The Social Democratic Workers' party is proposing an increase in the minimum wage and free higher education. "The party is usually considered as being 'Latvian' although one quarter of its members is not of 'Latvian extraction'. Latvian voters who have not forgotten the party's co-operation in the town council of Riga are sceptical about the Social Democratic Workers' Party. Also any leftwing party is automatically perceived as being Russian in Latvia", stresses Janis Ikstens.
The Electoral Campaign
The Farmers' Union and the Greens (ZZS) decided to receive For Latvia and Ventspils (LV) members on their lists - the latter is led by Aivars Lemberg the mayor of Ventspils. On 20th July last he was accused or corruption and money laundering in transactions that took place between 1993 and 1995. He is under suspicion of having received 453,000 lats (650,000 euro) in dividends from a Swiss Investment Company Multinord AG. Ainars Lemberg has been prohibited from leaving Latvia and has been sentenced to pay bail of one million lats (1.43 million euro). "I do not have that much money on my account", he maintained in the magazine Pastaiga which ranked him amongst the Latvian millionaires with an estimated fortune of 51 million lats (73.26 million euro).
Ainars Lemberg, aged 52, is the second most popular personality in the country just behind the President of the Republic Vaira Vike-Freiberga. In the last local elections on 13th March 2005 he was brilliantly elected mayor of Ventspils, a position he has held for the last 18 years winning 72% of the vote and ten of the twelve seats in the town. Ainars Lemberg maintained the decision by the prosecutor was politically motivated: "It is of course a coincidence that the prosecutor's decision was taken on the same day that the Farmers' Union and the Greens chose me as the candidate for Prime Minister," he declared.
Mid March Latvia was rocked by the so-called "Jurmalagate" a scandal named after the town of Jurmala which lies close to the capital of Riga. After the local elections on 13th March 2005 a town councillor admitted having received a sum of 10,000 lats for voting in favour of a candidate in the election of the town's mayor. After an enquiry the authorities responsible for the fight against corruption traced the affair back to two national politicians: Transport Minister and leader of the First Party of Latvia, Ainars Slesers, and former Prime Minister, founder of the People's Party, Andris Skele. Ainars Slesers was dismissed by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis.
The following month Economy Minister and number two of New Era (JL), Krisjanis Karins, was severely criticised for having distributed European funds to various entrepreneurs, with some members of government even requesting a legal investigation into this. New Era leader Einars Repse then asked the Prime Minister to choose between the First Party of Latvia (LPP) and his party. The Prime Minister refused to break the coalition with the First Party of Latvia and so Mr Repse left the government. This withdrawal did not appear to please public opinion: the party that was in the main at the origin of the crisis lost four points in the opinion polls between March and April last. Since this crisis Aigars Kalvitis has led a minority government.
Finally the Prime Minister came under fire for not having requested the resignation of his Home Minister, Dzintars Jaundzeikars (LPP) after incidents that took place in Riga on the day of Gay Pride during which the police were unable to ensure the security of those taking part in the march. According to political analysts Aigars Kalvitis did not want to run the risk of seeing Ministers belonging to the First Party of Latvia (LPP) leave the government bloc and preferred not to show too much affinity with the participants of Gay Pride. "The Prime Minister's decision (not to punish his Home Minister) shows a lack of political responsibility," declared Ilze Brands-Kehre, director of the Centre for Human Rights in Latvia.
Just one month before voting New Era, (JL) in spite of its decline in the polls, is still the most popular political party in the country. It is credited with 12% of the vote in the latest polls which took place at the beginning of September (+ 1.9 points more since July). The party led by Karlis Sadurskis is followed by the Farmers' Union and the Greens (ZZS) that is due to win 11.4% of the vote but which lost some points (-2,6 points) however after Aivars Lemberg's appointment as candidate for the position of Prime Minister. For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PVTCL) lies in third position with 9.3% of the vote (+1.2 points) and the People's Party lies fourth with 8.9% (-1 point). For the Fatherland and Freedom (TB/LNNK) is due to be represented winning 6% of the vote (-1.5 points).
No other political party is due to win the necessary 5% to enter the Saeima: the Social Democratic Workers' Party is only due to win 3.8% and the two allies Latvia's First Party (LPP) and Latvia's Way, 3.5%. Since the beginning of September however the polls are no longer reliable since more than a third of voters say they still have not made their choice (36%). During the elections in 2002 only 21% had not made a decision just one month before the election.
Reminder of the General Election Results 5th October 2002 in Latvia
Participation rate: 72.49%
Source Agence France-Presse