Latvian elections: Populist success and coalitions

Latvian elections: Populist success and coalitions

Latvia held a parliamentary election on 6 October. This saw the success of numerous small parties; notable is the arrival of KPV LV, relative newcomers who gained sixteen seats in the hundred seat Saeima. The previous centre-right coalition forged of three parties all saw their vote share significantly reduced, demonstrating a populist shift in the polling. The Harmony party won most seats (23) but their pro-Russian policies make them unattractive coalition partners. Expect the upcoming weeks to be consumed by movements to form a coalition, which is a mainstay of the Latvian electoral system. Harmony is likely to be excluded again, with a likely coalition of five parties seeking to claim power. This would keep Latvia on its current pro-Western foreign policy track.

Democratic weakness and voter apathy

Since seceding from the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvia has registered continuous population decline caused by emigrations and a low birth rate. It has 1.93 million citizens, down from over 2.6 million in 1990. Latvia also possesses a large ethnic Russian diaspora, forming 26% of its population. The pro-Russian Harmony party are reliant on this demographic as the basis of their electoral success. Their voters are keen to protect the rights of ethnic Russian citizens (a minority of whom are excluded from voting) and ensuring the Russian language is taught in primary education. However, many Latvians view Harmony with suspicion because of its stance and alliances. Party leader Nils Ušakovs’ reluctance to criticise Russia over its Crimean intervention, Harmony’s previous alliance with United Russia (the party of Vladimir Putin), and corruption allegations have compounded this mistrust. The party has been sidelined from Latvian politics, having never previously entered into a coalition.

Unexpected populist gains

Latvia lacks many common factors that give rise to populist groups, hence, favourable populist results for KPV LV are a surprise. The country has enjoyed economic prosperity in recent years with unemployment at a 10-year low. It also has a small immigrant population – immigration traditionally being an all-important issue for populist agendas.. The economy was adversely affected by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis – Latvian GDP collapsed over 25% from pre-crisis levels but recent growth has been exceptionally strong compared to other EU states. Furthermore, Latvia has not experienced a surge of new voters, turnout remains stagnant at 54%. If anything voter turnout is on the wane and remains low when measured against EU counterparts. Therefore, one of the few possible explanations for the rise of populism could be perceived corruption in the establishment. In February, Ilmārs Rimšēvičs, head of Latvia’s central bank was arrested amid corruption allegations.

KPV LV, which stands for ‘Who Owns the State’, are major beneficiaries of this election, with the second most seats in parliament. They are led by actor turned radio host Artus Kaimiņš, who has campaigned on the basis of both anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiments. Their platform is centered firmly against the elite. Kaimiņš arrest, as recently as June amid claims of party funding irregularities, did not reduce anti-establishment resentment.  The Party’s message has resonated with the electorate earning them sixteen seats. However, they have irked many by suggesting an alliance with the pro-Russian Harmony party, which is unprecedented in Latvian politics.

The New Conservative Party, another newcomer, won third-most votes, also gaining sixteen seats. Its campaign was based more firmly on Latvian nationalism and socially conservative values than the centre-left KPV LV; for example, they oppose same-sex marriage and dual state languages. Fighting corruption is another key policy in response to numerous scandals in Latvian politics and business. The New Conservatives leadership contains many former officers from the state anti-corruption organisation. The party also seeks to rectify the weakness of Latvian democracy that is brought about not only by dishonest activities but also by the low voter turnout at Parliamentary elections. Turnout, at 54%, is down from over  80% in 1993. Ruling established parties have suffered heavy losses. Prior to the election a three-party centre-right coalition formed of the Union of Greens and Farmers, National Alliance and Unity Party saw their support eroded, losing 47% of their seats amongst them. The Union of Greens and Farmers, led by the current Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis, came sixth with only eleven seats, compromising their ability to negotiate in the coming all-party discussions.

Outlook

Coalitions are symptomatic of Latvian politics and the outcome of this election is no different. President Raimonds Vējonis will undertake discussions with the seven parties that have won seats. A lengthy and complex series of negotiations to form a government is now ongoing.

Fears of the pro-Russian Harmony party attaining power appear unfounded. Despite reinventing themselves as a Social Democratic Party and shifting away from ties with Putin’s party in Russia, even if Harmony entered an alliance with KPV LV their collective thirty-nine seats would fall well short of an overall majority. Another party would still be required to gain control of the Saeima. Historically, Latvian parties entering a coalition with any pro-Russian party has been considered crossing a red line and remains highly unlikely. It is expected that Harmony will remain an outlier in Latvian politics, unable to wield their numerical advantage to move into the mainstream.

Retaining the status quo of Harmony’s fringe status is imperative to many of its parliamentary adversaries. This is because they fear a pro-Russia party in coalition might bring Latvia away from its westward facing foreign policy. In 2004, it joined both the EU and NATO, which significantly riled Moscow. Today there are over 1,400 NATO troops stationed in the nation, as part of its Enhanced Forward Presence to reinforce security and reassure NATO’s eastern member states. Still, the probable outcome is the continuation of a multi-party coalition which excludes the pro-Russians.

The ethnic divide in Latvian politics remains strong. KPV LV’s inexperience could be disadvantageous in talks and hinder their representatives’ possibility of becoming Prime Minister. One option which is being pushed by Janis Bordans of the New Conservative Party is a five-party alliance which excludes both Harmony and the incumbent Greens, but this has also been met by skepticism. The fact that the second to sixth-placed parties all hold a similar number of seats will make it cumbersome for one party to take the lead in negotiating a potentially fragile coalition.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author