02/10/2006 - D-7
On 7th October the Latvians are being called to elect the 100 members of the Saeima, the only Chamber in Parliament. 19 political parties or alliances representing around 40 parties and 1,025 candidates are standing in this election.
For the very first time, regional parties are taking part in the national elections. This is an event which is not judged at its true value according to some political analysts although during the last general elections on 5th October 2002 Aleksejs Vidavskis's, mayor of Daugavpils, inclusion on the list for Human Rights in a United Latvia (PVTCL) won a number of votes for the Russian speaking party.
New Era (JL) chose to put five women (Solvita Aboltina, Ina Druviete, Linda Murniece, Ilma Cepane and former Foreign Minister (2002-2004) and former European Commissioner Sandra Kalniete) at the top of the list in each of the five electoral districts in the country (Riga, Vidzeme, Latgale, Zemgale and Kurzeme). Finally four people with dual nationality are standing for election: three American/Latvians: Andrejs Mezmalis, candidate For the Fatherland and Freedom (TB/LNNK), former Secretary General of New Era (JL) Uldis Ivars, and former Economy Minister Krisjanis Karins (JL). Liene Liepina, Latvia/Swede, will also run under the banner of New Era.
A mission of 16 observers from 12 countries will be responsible for monitoring the election for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The observers will be deployed in three districts: Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale.
The President of the Republic, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, worried about the low participation rate forecast for this election, has spoken of making the vote obligatory in Latvia. "When people do not vote, their abstention is a threat to society. The only alternative to democracy is dictatorship and chaos. This is why it seems important to me to have a discussion on the issue of the obligatory vote," she declared. Some political analysts are indeed expecting a low participation rate (it lays at 72.49% during the last national election on 5th October 2002). "The main question is to see whether enough people are going to vote or whether the extremists will be the only ones to fulfil their civic duty," asked Nils Muiznieks, a political science professor from the University of Latvia, who maintains that "increasingly people feel that all parties are the same and that all of them are corrupt."
Latvia found itself in turmoil this year in the wake of a number of scandals. In March a TV channel broadcast recordings in which the founders of the two parties in the present government coalition could be heard – Transport Minister and leader of the First Party of Latvia (LPP), Ainars Slesers and former Prime Minister, founder of the People's Party (TP), Andris Skele- coming to an agreement on the purchase of votes in the last local elections which took place on 13th March 2005 in the town of Jurmala. Since then Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis obliged Ainars Slesers to resign (TP). The so-called Jurmalagate started a year earlier when a town councillor admitted having received the sum of 10,000 lats for voting in favour of a specific candidate in the election of the town's mayor. Likewise the decision taken by the Farmers' Union and the Greens (ZZS) to choose the popular Mayor of Ventspils, Aivers Lemberg (For Latvia and Ventspils) as candidate for the position of Prime Minister was extremely controversial. On 20th July this year the Mayor of Ventspils was accused of corruption and money laundering in transactions that had taken 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 forbidden from leaving Latvia and sentenced to providing bail of one million lats (1.43 million euro). These scandals might prove particularly damaging with regard to the participation rate in these elections since they weigh heavily on the relations between citizens and the political community which have grown constantly worse over the last few years. According to a poll undertaken in August by the research centre SKDS less than three Latvians in ten said they were confident in their Parliament, a figure which has declined steadily: 27% in 2006, 37% in 2003, 31% in 2004 and 28% in 2005.
"The participation rate was boosted artificially to a high level during the last elections due to the creation of new parties and by some issues such as the referendum on citizenship. Today there are no longer any such issues and another new party has not emerged, so we are running a real risk of abstention achieving record heights," stressed Pauls Raudseps, political editor of the daily Diena.
The issue of the participation rate has been worsened by the high emigration rate experienced by Latvia over the last few years. The country has lost 378,000 inhabitants since 1989; around 60,000 Latvians (out of a population of 2.3 million) have left the country since 2000, 99% of the time they left to work in the UK or Ireland. "Around 6% of the working population has left the country," said political analyst Ivars Indans. The Central Bank is forecasting that an additional 200,000 people will do the same thing over the next six years. With a GDP growth rate of 10% in 2005 Latvia is starting to suffer from a lack of labour in some sectors in particular. However the high growth rate along with inflation at 6.7% (twice that of Lithuania) make it difficult to foresee a rise in salaries which might encourage potential emigrants to stay at home but the consequences of which might prove to be dramatic if there is no corresponding rise in productivity.
Apart from the economic situation three other themes form the core of the electoral campaign.
The question of the status of the Russian speaking population is a recurrent theme in Latvian political life. The country has the greatest Russian minority out of the three Baltic Republics (28.8% of its inhabitants). Some of the minority (18% of the population) do not have Latvian nationality (and are not citizens of any other country) and live with a 'non-citizen's' passport which although providing them with the right to live in the country and access to social services does not allow them to vote in national or local elections and prohibits them from working in the police force and the army. Two political parties specifically defend the interests of the Russian speakers or more widely speaking, the Slavs: For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PVTCL), led by MEP Tatjana Zdanoka and Jakovs Pliners, and the Harmony Centre (SC), successor to the Communist Party of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia led by Nils Usakovs. Traditionally these parties win a quarter of the seats in Parliament, a figure which corresponds to the proportion of Russian speakers amongst the electorate.
Leading the battle for the defence of Latvian interests are the members of the nationalist party, For the Fatherland and Freedom, who have put forward amendments to the rules governing the Saeima whereby every MP would have to speak Latvian both in the plenary sessions and the commission meetings as well as during the internal meetings of the political party to which he/she belongs. This request was rejected by the other parties represented in Parliament but it did receive the support of the First Party of Latvia. The promotion of the Latvian language as well as national traditions and values feature at the top of the list in this party's electoral programme.
In July Justice Minister, Guntars Grinvalds (LPP), suggested naturalisation should be made more difficult by making the language examine harder to pass. For the Fatherland and Freedom also presented a new text on citizenship requesting a reduction in the number of naturalisations and the possibility of withdrawing nationality from anyone believed to be disloyal towards the Latvian State. This draft law was rejected by the Saeima on 28th September last. The nationalist party would like to make the use of Latvian obligatory in schools which receive pupils from the Russian speaking minority. At the other end of the political scale the Harmony Centre is fighting for the defence of the diversity of the population and the free choice on the part of each citizen of the language in which his/her children will be educated. For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PVTCL) wants to make Russian the official language in the town councils where it is the mother tongue of more than 20% of the inhabitants. It is fighting for the use of Russian in higher education and the legal system.
Corruption is also an omnipresent theme. Latvia lies 51st in the world ranking established every year with regard to how corruption is perceived by the NGO Transparency International. Most political parties put detailed measures forward in their electoral programmes for the fight against this problem. But some such as the Farmers' Union and the Greens and For Human Rights in a United Latvia do not even broach the subject.
Finally this year the homosexual issue has become a real political stake, especially since the incidents that took place on 22nd July last during the Gay Pride March in Riga when the police proved totally ineffectual to safeguard the security of demonstrators who were attacked by rightwing supporters. Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis was severely criticised for not having requested the resignation of his Home Minister, Dzintars Jaundzeikars, member of the First Party of Latvia, a party that is against homosexuality. "The Prime Minister's decision (not to punish his Home Minister) shows a lack of political responsibility," maintained Ilze Brands-Kehre, director of the Centre for Human Rights of Latvia. On 7th September last the First Party of Latvia suggested that MP's vote on a constitutional amendment to prohibit the publication of articles and interviews of homosexuals in which they mention their sexual preference so that "the media do not undermine the role of the family as defined by the Latvian Constitution and they do not create divisions within society," – thus read the text published by the First Party of Latvia. On 25th October the Saeima adopted a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to the union between a man and a woman thereby making marriage between homosexuals impossible. On 12th September last Parliament voted on a law to prohibit discrimination of homosexuals in the professional world, a text supported by the People's Party led by Prime Minister Aigars Kaltivis, the Farmer's Union and the Green along with New Era. "This amendment will open the way to pedophilia, pederasty and other forms of perversion," stressed MP and secretary of the Saeima, Janis Smits (LPP) after the vote.
When interviewed for the State TV by the agency BSN on what might influence the Latvian vote the most, the population mentioned primarily the personality of the candidates (40.4%), then the parties' ideology (37.2%). Finally 22.4% of those interviewed said they generally chose the "lesser evil."
With 13.3% of the voting intentions in the last poll by Latvijas Fakti mid-September, the People's Party (TP) led by Prime Minister Aigars Kaltivis came out ahead for the first time. It is followed by the Farmers' Union (ZZS) (12,1%) and For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PVTCL) (9,2%).
New Era (JL) only lies fourth with 8.1% of the vote whilst the First Party of Latvia- Latvia's Way gained two points in comparison with the previous month reaching 6.3% of the voting intentions. Then comes For the Fatherland and Freedom (TB/LNNK) (5.8%) and the Harmony Centre (SC) with 5.7%.
A political party has to win at least 5% of the vote to be represented in Parliament. According to the polls seven or eight parties are due to enter the Saeima on 7th October next. 16.7% of those interviewed said they still had not made their choice and 10.5% do not think they will go and vote.