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.
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 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%|
|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%|
|New Conservative Party||0|
|Freedom. Free from Fear, Hate and Anger||0||0.19%|
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 is (email@example.com) is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Latvia