The October 4th 2014 parliamentary election in Latvia

Latvia’s 2014 parliamentary election, the eighth since the country regained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was framed by the heightened international tension and uncertainty caused by neighbouring Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing support for secessionists in eastern Ukraine. These events further divided Latvia’s already fractured society. While one-third of the country’s population that was Russophone, and thus obviously more susceptible to the Russian government’s interpretation of events, was broadly understanding – and one section of it even supportive – of Putin’s actions, ethnic Latvians overwhelmingly opposed Russian interference in Ukraine and became increasingly concerned about the country’s own security.

Security concerns trumped other policy issues. While economic and social inequality, as well as reform of Latvia’s stagnant education and health sectors, were frequently debated by politicians, Russia’s actions remained central to shaping voter preferences. The 2014 election continued the established pattern of Latvian electoral politics. Russophones mostly voted for the pro-Russian Harmony Social Democracy (Saskaņa Sociāldemokrātiskā partija) while Latvian votes were split between more-or-less centre-right ethnic Latvian parties that differed on personality more than policy. As was also the established norm, two new parties entered parliament after populist anti-government campaigns. Nevertheless, the next government coalition looked likely to exclude both the new parties and the Russophone Harmony Social Democracy grouping.

The Campaign

Thirteen parties presented lists of candidates to contest 100 parliamentary seats in five electoral districts. Harmony Social Democracy, which won the largest number of seats in the 2011 early parliamentary election, consistently led the polls. The party had earlier changed its name from Harmony Centre to Harmony Social Democracy in an attempt to expand its appeal beyond the Russophone electorate, of which it had a near monopoly, and capture centre-left ethnic Latvian voters. However, Mr Putin’s actions in Ukraine left Harmony Social Democracy struggling to keep the support of moderate Russophones, shocked by the un-expected violence of events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Harmony Social Democracy (which has long had a co-operation agreement with Mr Putin’s governing United Russia party) was initially paralysed by inaction, attempting to adopt a middle path in relation to the events in Ukraine by neither denouncing nor praising Russian actions. It argued that Russia did not pose any direct threat to Latvia or the wider Baltic region, and opposed both political and economic sanctions. However, the earlier May 2014 European Parliament elections saw voters abandon Harmony Social Democracy. Hardline Russophones voted for Latvia’s Russian Union and the populist Alternative party while moderates switched their vote to the governing Unity (Vienotība) party. Harmony Social Democracy only won 13% of the vote while Unity collected 46.2%. Harmony Social Democracy eventually developed a two-faced Janus position of largely denouncing Russian actions to Latvian audiences while speaking in a more subtle and supportive tone to Russophone ones. Indeed, just a few weeks before the election Harmony Social Democracy’s leader Nils Ušakovs, the popular Mayor of Riga, flew to Moscow where he announced in a TV interview that Vladimir Putin was the ‘best possible’ leader for Russia in the current climate.

The party that had finished second in the 2011 election, the Zatlers Reform Party (Zatlera Reformu Partija, later renamed just the Reform Party), predictably splintered and suffered a quick, drastic and lasting collapse in voter support after the poll. It has been gradually merging with the governing Unity party since 2013. Unity cherry-picked a number of the Reform Party’s more popular political figures, including the well-regarded foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvics and youthful economics minister Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis, for its electoral list. Unity consistently polled second after Harmony Social Democracy. The other two political parties that made up Latvia’s governing coalition – the Green/Farmers Union (Zaļo/Zemnieku Savienība) and the National Alliance (Nacionālā Apvienība) – also polled well.

Several generously financed new parties were created in advance of the election. Former prime minister and Governor of the Bank of Latvia Einārs Repše attempted a return to Latvian politics through a new political vehicle named Latvia’s Development (Latvijas Attīstība). It proposed detailed technocratic solutions to deep-rooted problems, offering a complete overhaul of the health and social security sectors. Former deputy prime minister, transport minister and economics minister Ainārs Šlesers (popularly seen as one of Latvia’s three oligarchs) seized control of the virtually defunct United for Latvia party (Vienoti Latvijai) and poured money and advertising know-how into this new project. The party campaigned on an ‘old heads are needed now’ platform, bringing together a number of elderly former prime ministers and battered party hacks. However, significant changes in party financing and campaigning legislation enacted over the last few years – particularly limits on expenditure and television advertising as well as the introduction of public financing for established parties – made it far more difficult for new parties to challenge the established ones. Moreover, these parties were led by public figures that had little remaining credibility and could not persuade voters that they actually had anything new to offer. United for Latvia was the fifth new political vehicle that Mr Šlesers had created and led in the last decade-and-a-half. They all appeared doomed from the outset and struggled to poll above 1%.

In contrast, the oddly named ‘From My Heart for Latvia’ (No Sirds Latvijai) was both extravagantly well-funded and had a popular figurehead in Ingūna Sudraba, a former Chief State Auditor who entered the political fray for the first time. The party had no identifiable ideology or policies, adopting instead a populist platform that: accused the political establishment of incompetence and mis-management, bemoaned Latvia’s economic inequality and offered to bridge the ethnic divide between Latvians and Russophones. The party had a difficult start when Ms Sudraba fainted at her first press conference and had to be carried from the room by a cluster of journalists. However, it benefited from both a lavish and long campaign that focused on Ms Sudraba’s reputation as a corruption-fighting Chief State Auditor while failing to elaborate a single detailed economic or social policy.

However, Ms Sudraba’s public image began to blemish as she was increasingly linked to opaque Russian economic and political interests and faltered in the televised party leader debates held in the run-up to the election. Ironically, ‘From My Heart for Latvia’ then fell victim to a new populist surge when a well-known actor turned radio talk show host, Artuss Kaimiņš, took the plunge into the political arena. Mr Kaimiņš had been recruited to the peripheral Latvia’s Regional Alliance (Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība, which had polled just 2.5% in the May 2014 European Parliament election) party list as a wild card candidate. He rose to prominence in the first half of 2014 when he used his Internet radio show (the ‘Dog Kennel’) to rant against corruption and abused a whole host of high profile politicians that appeared on his show as guests. He then received national exposure when he was interviewed on Latvian public television’s “1:1” political discussion show where he slighted, flouted and bawled down the experienced host. Latvia’s Regional Alliance, which focused on greater capital investment in rural regions in its party programme, experienced a sharp rise in opinion polls that led to the party being invited to the leader debates. The party’s candidate for prime minister, the thoughtful Mārtiņš Bondars (who has a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University and previously served as chief of staff to both the Latvian President and prime minister) impressed with his debating skill and the party surged in the final opinion polls published before the vote.

The Results

The election saw a turnout of 912,000 voters (58.8%), fractionally down on the previous turnout of 59.4% in 2011 and a continuation of the long-standing fall in the number of people voting in Latvian elections. The distribution of votes and seats for the major parties was as follows:

Party Seats (+/- compared to 2011) % of vote
Harmony Social Democracy 24 (-7) 23.00%
Unity 23 (+3) 21.87%
Green/Farmers Union 21 (+8) 19.53%
National Alliance 17 (+3) 16.61%
Latvia’s Regional Union 8 6.66%
From My Heart for Latvia 7 6.85%
Latvia’s Russian Union 0 1.58%
Unified for Latvia 0 1.18%
Latvia’s Development 0 0.89%
New Conservative Party 0
Freedom. Free from Fear, Hate and Anger 0 0.19%
Growth 0 0.17%
Sovereignty 0 0.11%

Source: Latvian Central Election Commission (2014)

While Harmony Social Democracy won the largest share of the vote, it also saw its share of parliamentary seats decline from 31 to 24. In contrast, the three governing coalition parties did better than expected and collected enough seats (61 out of 100) to continue in office. ‘From My Heart for Latvia’ won just seven seats, less than anticipated, largely because Latvia’s Regional Union zipped up to eight seats on the back of the shameless populism of Artuss Kaimiņš and the debating skills of Mārtiņš Bondars. However, Latvia’s Regional Union was both blessed and cursed by the parliamentary presence of Mr Kaimiņš. On the one hand, his supporters dragged the party into parliament. On the other hand, his continued outspoken anti-elitism could well have kept them it out of government office.

Latvia’s voters also enthusiastically used the distinct open party-list system that allowed them to support or reject individual candidates on the party list that they chose by either putting a ‘+’ next to candidates’ names or alternatively striking them out. Unity’s power broker, the current parliamentary Speaker Solvita Āboltiņa, was struck down from first to fourth on the party list in the Kurzeme electoral district and was thus not re-elected to parliament when Unity gained just three seats in the region. Jānis Junkurs, a former male model elected to parliament in 2011 on the Zatlers Reform Party ticket, had waged a murkily well-funded individual campaign in the Kurzeme electoral district that helped him shoot above Mr Āboltiņa in the final reckoning. Perhaps fearing political retribution, Mr Junkurs was absent from parliament on sick leave since the election.

Prospects for the future: Coalition building and vote-buying

The days and weeks after the election were dominated by a growing vote-buying scandal. A Unity party member in the eastern region of Latgale sent an email to party leaders, subsequently leaked to the press, claiming that voters had been encouraged to vote for Unity’s influential Chief Whip, Dzintars Zaķis, in exchange for cash. The Security Police started investigating this and several other different cases of systematic vote-buying (the largest number of such cases that it had ever investigated). Mr Zaķis temporarily left his post and suspended his party membership while the police investigation continued, although he stated that he had no intention of resigning his parliamentary mandate or ‘abandoning’ Unity. If the allegations were to be proved, the distribution of seats would probably need to be re-jigged between the parties. A legal challenge by Harmony Social Democracy may even result in a new election being called, although at the time of writing this prospect appeared rather unlikely.

The government coalition formation process was complicated by Unity gaining only marginally more seats than its two coalition parties. While Unity remains the senior coalition partner and is likely to keep the prime minister and finance minister posts (with Laimdota Straujuma continuing on as prime minister), the re-allocation of other ministerial posts to reflect the relative new balance of power between the three parties dragged out the coalition-building negotiations. Harmony Social Democracy was excluded from negotiations on the formation of the new government and seems doomed to another four-year stretch in parliamentary opposition alongside ‘From My Heart for Latvia’ and the Regional Alliance. European issues played no part in the election (indeed, they barely figured in May’s European Parliament election). In this sense the election was business as usual.

Daunis Auers

Daunis Auers is (auers@lu.lv) is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Latvia

Bulgarian elections 2014: Institutionalization of instability?

The 2014 Parliamentary elections in Bulgaria were preceded by almost one year of civic protests in the capital, Sofia. Young people who formed the majority of the protesters demanded that the Bulgarian political elite should become accountable and responsible for its political decisions. With the slogan ‘Who?’ they demanded to know who was governing the country. Thus, Bulgarian youth protested against the “backstage” – the clandestine dealings between politicians and economic elite, which they felt was corrupting not only political and economic spheres, but the whole of society. The decision of the parliament to dissolve itself and call new elections in October 2014 was accepted with relief by Bulgarian citizens. The European Parliament (EP) elections in May and the severe defeat of one of the governing parties, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) served as a precursor for the national elections.

The Campaign

The electoral campaign, as is usual in Bulgaria, began long before the official starting date. The results of EP elections mentioned above and surveys conducted by various sociological agencies all indicated that the main opposition party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), would be the winner. The survey prognoses remained stable throughout the whole campaign, showing support of about 30% of votes for GERB. Thus, other political parties from the very beginning shaped their electoral strategies according to the expected results. As a result, for the first time, the campaign for national elections was less intensive and aggressive than the EP elections campaign. Politicians preferred to focus on populist promises, such as generating one million working places in the next four years (“Bulgaria Without Censorship” bloc), improvement of the infrastructure, and gaining additional funds from the EU. But pending reforms in critical areas of development for Bulgaria – including education, health care, security and social policy – were barely mentioned. The EU was referred to during the campaign primarily with regards to the blocking of funds by the Union during the previous government. In general, within the Bulgarian political field, the EU continued to be perceived mainly as a financial donor, while all other dimensions of this element of regional cooperation remain largely muted.

By the time of the elections, most political observers shared the opinion that this was the calmest electoral campaign for last 15 years, without significant disputes on policies among the politicians. These tended to rely on their electoral cores and did not try to attract other voters. Some experts even expressed an opinion that this was an intentional strategy of the parties. One novelty of the campaign was the introduction of preferential voting in party lists, which gave voters an opportunity to change the order of elected MPs. Consequently, the secondary members of party lists often had more active campaigns, as they had more to gain.

Results

The overall results were in accordance with expectations. Still, there were several important trends and developments that could be observed from the outcome of the elections. First is the voter turnout: in these elections the turnout was below 50% (48.66%) – the lowest in the history of Bulgarian national parliamentary elections since the fall of communism. In last five national elections the highest turnout was registered in 2001 (66%); after that turnout rates began to decrease, reaching its minimum in 2014. Thus, there was a tendency of declining participation in one of fundamental institutions of democratic political game: elections. This was an important indicator of the level of citizens’ trust in political institutions in general. Indeed, in the last several years there were numerous surveys in the country indicating high levels of distrust in the main democratic institutions. Combined with the rising support for populist parties and longstanding problems of corruption, this put the very stability of the country’s democratic model under threat.

Second, an important issue was the third consecutive victory of GERB in national elections. But, this time the party’s results were not as impressive as their first victory: it gained 32.67% of the votes (1,072,491), which gave them 84 seats in the national parliament, compared to 39.72% (1,678,641 votes) in 2009. Since 2009, GERB steadily transformed itself from an anti-establishment party into one of the parties of the status quo. This decline in support could explain why Boyko Borisov, the party leader, looked more concerned than satisfied after the results were announced.

Table 1: Results of the of 2013 and 2014 elections parliamentary elections in Bulgaria

 

Party/Results 2013 % (votes) Seats 2014 % (votes) Seats
GERB 30.54% (1 081 605) 97 32.67% (1 072 491) 84
BSP 26.61% (942 541) 84 15.40% (505 527) 39
DPS 11.31% (400 466) 36 14.84% (487 134) 38
RB 8.89% (291 806) 23
Patriotic Front 7.28% (239 101) 19
BBC 5.69% (186 938) 15
Ataka 7.30% (258 481) 23 4.52% (148 262) 15
ABV 4.15% (136 223) 11

Source: compiled by the author based on data from Tsentralna izbiratelna Komissiya

The third issue to consider is the humiliating defeat of Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the entrance of new left challenger, the Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV), into the national parliament. The BSP received the support of 15.39% of the electorates (505,527 votes), which as the lowest number of votes since the fall of communism in 1989 and situated the party among those with average electoral support. The tendency of declining BSP support was visible in last three national elections. In fact, the party did not succeed in stabilizing its electoral position since 2005, when the party was part of Sergei Stanishev’s coalition government. Sociological surveys in first few days after the elections revealed that BSP voters in the EP elections preferred to vote for the newly established ABV coalition this time, as well as for the populist parties that secured parliamentary representation.

Fourthly, traditional centre-right parties were back in the parliament after a short break (2013-2014). Thus, under the name ‘Reformist Bloc’, the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) and Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), in coalition with the Movement Bulgaria of Citizens (DBG), received 8.88% of the votes (291,806). The voters of this bloc were predominantly economically active people with a University education living in the capital. Many of them participated in the 2013 protests, and were publicly active and explicit with their political preferences. This was a double edged sword for the new Bloc: on one hand, it had devoted supporters, but on the other the political activity of their electorate limited their room for maneuver, including their coalition potential.

Fifth, three nationalist populist parties entered parliament. Ataka succeeded in passing the electoral threshold (4%) for a fourth consecutive time. This party received 4.51% of the votes (148,262) and would be represented in the parliament by 12 MPs, which was far below its 2009 result: 9.36% (395,733). For a second consecutive electoral campaign Ataka focused on severe criticism of the EU, NATO, the USA, and the ‘colonization’ of the country by Western-based multinational companies. The party openly campaigned for close contacts with Russia, expressing its adoration of the ‘powerful man’ in Moscow. Not surprisingly, Ataka declared itself a Russophile party and opened its campaign with the concert of the Orchestra of Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Two other national-populist parties competed with Ataka for the support of Bulgarian voters and managed to enter parliament by forming the ‘Patriotic Front’ Coalition. This coalition comprised the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) and National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) supported by some other micro-parties. Their result was 7.28% of the votes (239,101) and they secured 19 MPs.

The role of television

Last but not least, these elections proved once again the importance of the media and especially TV as a channel for political communication and mobilization in Bulgaria. The three populist political parties which entered parliament were created by TV channels. Ataka emerged from a political programme on the ‘SKAT’ TV channel and after it entered parliament for the first time in 2005 the party created its own channel ‘TV Alpha’. The birthplace of NFSB was also TV ‘SKAT’ a few years after Ataka came into being. The third populist party that was the product of TV was “Bulgaria without Censorship” (BBC). This party grew out of a TV programme of the same name produced by the Chief Executive of the TV 7 channel, Nikolay Barekov. After the programme gained popularity, Mr Barekov left TV and started a political career as a self-described ‘new politician’. The significant role of TV in the creation of new political parties in Bulgaria was characteristic of the political process in that country more generally. Parties could use the media successfully as a springboard to gain popularity and influence, but they did not invest much into party building. The use of the media and, especially TV, made such parties highly flexible and sensitive to public opinion. This rendered them responsive, but not responsible: they lacked institutional structures that could translate popular opinions into policies. These were ‘parties without firm social roots’ (Poguntke 2002) representing only the interests of their leaders. This made possible the un-thinkable situation of the Bulgarian nationalist-populist party Ataka supporting Plamen Oresharski’s 2013-14 coalition government comprising the BSP and DPS, both of which were formally Ataka’s ideological adversaries.

Composition of the future government

Determining composition of the government will be a difficult and time-consuming process due to the fragmentation of the newly elected parliament. There are three parties and five coalitions, in which the number of parties varies from two (Patriotic Front) to thirteen (Coalition BSP Left Bulgaria). Immediately after the elections, GERB said that they would form a minority government, relying on the implicit support of the DPS, BBC, and Patriotic Front. This already happened once in 2009 when GERB won national elections but did not have enough MPs to form majority government. At that time, the leader of the party formed a minority government and succeeded in attracting several MPs from the smaller parties represented in parliament, as a result of which he was able to remain in office for more than three years. GERB leader Boyko Borisov’s latest idea is to form a government of “shared responsibility” in which some parties will have ministerial positions, but there would be no official coalition agreement. The alternative, of dissolving parliament again and calling new elections, is not viable as nobody seems ready for this at this stage, simply because their election to a new parliament is not certain. The parties that are new entrants (BBC, ABV and Patriotic Front) prefer to have secure places in the current parliament than to try and maximize their gains in new elections; while the party of Bulgarian Turks, the DPS, is in a position to defend effectively its interests in this parliament and sees no need for new elections. The BSP and Ataka, on the other hand, are in a deep crisis and definitely not prepared for a new electoral battle.

Conclusion

On the basis of the above we can draw two conclusions. First, in the short term perspective we have high level of political fragmentation which will make the next government highly dependent upon different interests and incapable of pursuing significant reforms in key areas for Bulgaria’s political and economic development. Second, in the long term perspective, the steady decline in voter participation, widespread political cynicism, increase in support for populist parties and the “institutionalization” of corrupting practices such as vote buying and corporate voting, all contribute to the deeper erosion of the democratic political system. Bulgaria may be entering a period of prolonged political and economic instability which will render it an unreliable political partner in the EU and NATO frameworks.

Dragomir Stoyanov

Dragomir Stoyanov (dragomirstoyanov@gmail.com) is Lecturer in European Union Politics and International Politics at City College International Faculty and VUZF (Bulgaria). His research interests include political parties, Europeanization and politics in Central and Eastern Europe.