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Latvia after elections: some major changes, but the government will be the same

Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins at a polling station during the Parliamentary elections in Sigulda, Latvia, 01 October 2022.
©EPA-EFE/TOMS KALNINS  |   Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins at a polling station during the Parliamentary elections in Sigulda, Latvia, 01 October 2022.

Despite causing heavy criticism and dissatisfaction with their response to the Covid-19 pandemic, taxes, and other issues, Prime Minister of Latvia Krišjānis Kariņš, and his party “New Unity” will most likely form the new government following the parliamentary elections held on October the 1st. However, the elections did significantly alter the landscape of Latvian politics.

Four newcomers, three voted out

According to the results of the elections, the pro-Western and anti-Kremlin “New Unity” came in first with 18.97% of the votes, giving the party 26 MPs out of 100. 

Overall, seven parties made it pass the 5% threshold for the Latvian parliament called Saeima. Runner up was the opposition Union of Greens and Farmers, with 12.44% of the votes (16 seats), followed by the newly established, also Western-oriented United List – 11.01% (15 seats). The National Alliance, a junior partner in the rulling pre-election coalition, came in fourth with 9.29% (13 seats). The other three parties in the new Saeima are all newcomers: the pro-Kremlin “For Stability!” got 6.8% of the votes and 11 MPs seats, “Latvia First”, led by the once influential minister of transport Ainars Slesers got 6.24%  and nine seats, and, finally, the left-leaning  “Progressives” got 6.16%.

12 parties, including current coalition partners “Development/For!” and “Conservatives” didn’t make it pass the threshold. Moreover, the winner of the previous elections and the main opposition party in the outgoing parliament, the Social Democratic “Harmony” Party, which tried to balance the pro-Kremlin and pro-Western positions, was voted out. If four years ago when the current Saeima was elected Harmony received 19.8% of the votes, on Saturday they only got 4.81%, triggering the most important crisis in the party’s history.

59.43% of Lativan voters cast their votes in the latest elections, up from 54.6% în 2018 and 58.85% in 2014. It means that democracy works in Latvia, but its quality still is another question, points out political scientist Ojars Skudra. It is worth not forgetting that many people supported the political parties that did not get pass the threshold, reminds Martins Kaprans, the sociologist at Latvian Institute of Philosophy and Sociology. It means that a pretty big number of people are dissatisfied and there is good soil for future tension in society if something goes wrong. Moreover, one should remember that potential difficulties are just up to the corner – rising spending and the cost of living.

Both experts are sure that the Russian invasion of Ukraine motivated the citizens.

Changes in the ruling coalition are inevitable, but incumbent Krisjanis Karins will likely hold on to his job

Current prime-minister Krisjanis Karins got his post on the 23rd January 2019 nearly four months long coalition talks. K. Karins was an unlikely option as his “New Unity” party had, at that time, only eight MPs, less than other parties in the parliament. Also “New Unity” was in a deep crisis at that time and before the 2018 elections there were even doubts that the party would make it pass the threshold. K. Karins would lead the government through the Covid era and still ongoing war in Ukraine, and these crises were topped by the “usual challenges” like state budget and the small wages in many fields. Like so many other governments, K. Karins and his cabinet were widely criticized by the people and media for the Covid-19 policies. Also, the tax policies and other decisions made by the government were actively rejected.

But, in the end, “New Unity” won the elections this year. This is a normal paradox in democracy, says M. Kaprans. He reminds that historically people have little trust in parliament, political parties, and government. But at the same time, K. Karins has shown that he can balance the interests between the different political parties and influences since  his current government is supported by a four-party coalition (in the beginning there were five). “He embodies the sense of stability” during the unstable times, concludes M. Kaprans. O. Skudra notes K. Karins’ ability to stay in power for almost four years. He prevented several attempts to overthrow him and he did it without concentrating too much power in his hands. The political expert emphasizes that “New Unity” is represented also by the very popular minister of foreign affairs Edgars Rinkevics.

Although Karins will likely keep his job, the next ruling coalition will be different, as two parties from the current one did not make it pass the threshold.

Experts point out that last summer “Development / For!” decided to take a risky strategy – to become inside opposition in the government. When the election campaign started, they touted defense minister Artis Pabriks as their prime-minister candidate, pointing out that Latvia should not lose four years more as it did under K. Karins. But it was too late. O. Skudra recalls that “Development / For!” was involved in too many scandals – accusations of inaction in strengthening the border with Belarus and Russia, superficial and unplanned purchases of “Covid 19” vaccines, suspicions of gambling business lobbying, and others involving “Development / For!” ministers and politicians.

The second coalition party that didn’t make it to Parliament this year is the “Conservatives”. Its problem was that it is a “one question party”. From the very beginning, the “Conservatives” represented themselves as a party that fights against corruption. But in other fields, they did not show themselves as experts. The party also took a blow following the death, in 2020, of one of its brightest politicians, Juta Strike, according to M. Kaprans.

Tectonic changes for the parties representing Russian-speaking Latvians

The changes in the Russian-speaking flank could be described as revolutionary. The Social Democratic “Harmony” Party, that was for years one of the most popular parties in Latvia, was not elected in the new Saeima. The party, which lead for almost a decade the biggest municipality of Latvia, the Riga council, started to lose its popularity a couple of years ago. In the latest elections for the municipality of Riga, “Harmony” lost the mayorship. The main explanation is that its main electorate, the Russian speakers, no longer felt represented by the party, due to its refusal to adopt certain pro-Russian positions. Party leaders Nils Usakovs and Janis Urbanovics condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine and immediately Harmony’s popularity decreased. Then in May, when a decision was made to dismantle all the Soviet monuments in Latvia, “Harmony” did not take a clear position. On the one hand, they were against overthrowing the monuments, on the other hand, they did not object. “In these circumstances, when everything is sensitive and there must be clarity, one should not offer reheated social-democratic offers for the fifth time and pretend to be blind to the topics of an ethnic nature,” M. Kaprans told Veridica. At the same time, the emergence of “For stability!”, which came with clear opinions on those topics, offered voters an alternative to “Harmony” and cost the latter its seats in the Parliament.

Culturologist and Riga Stradins University researcher Sergej Kruks notes that “Harmony” lost its influence because it did not ensure the link between the power and Russian-speaking people. People are disappointed in the democracy because Russian language schools are closing, and their monuments are or will be dismantled. So, for Russian-speaking people there are no more instruments allowing them to exert influence in the administration.

Also, O. Skudra stresses that for Russian-speaking people Harmony’s distancing from Russia’s policies in Ukraine was unacceptable. The political expert assumes that “For Stability” in the future could be more confrontational than “Harmony”. M. Kaprans’s view on the matter is different: he is sure that step by step “For Stability!” is going to calm down. He also feels that success of “For Stability!” is a bit overstated. The party has only been voted by 6.8% of the participants in the elections, which is not such a large figure, and sociologists are explaining that many of their supporters are former “Harmony” voters.  

For Stability! claims it is ready to implement revolutionary changes. Among its slogans, one can find such expressions and appeals as “we will review Latvia’s independence within the European Union”, “we will consider a controlled default to refuse to pay EU debt”, “we will refuse to buy our electricity at inflated European Union prices” and all the people in Latvia will have Latvian citizenship no matter if they know Latvian language or if they can pass a test to receive citizenship.

However, S. Kruks feels that the growing popularity of “For Stability!” is not only connected to ethnicity. He told Veridica that socio-economic and regional factors are also playing a role. “For Stability!” as well as Green and Farmers Union, United List and Latvia First are more interested in the common people, their lives, and problems. New Unity, on the other hand, basically represents those who are working for the government and are better off in economic terms.

Taking into account that in the next Saeima there will be only 10 Russian-speaking politicians, and about a third of all Latvians are part of the Russian speaking minority, it may be assumed that the latter feel they are being marginalized.

The new government will not usher in any significant changes

The president of Latvia Egils Levits gave green light to K. Karins for “preliminary” government formation talks. At this very moment it seems that the new ruling coalition – and government – is going to be based on the collaboration between old allies “New Unity” and National Alliance, who will be joined by the newly-established United List. The big question is whether the “Progressives” will join the coalition. Latvian media is reporting that “New Unity” would like to see the “Progressives” in the government but the National Alliance and the United List have reservations about that. The talks among politicians could last until the beginning of November. M. Kaprans and O. Skudra believe that the talks are going to be tough, the government will consist of “New Unity”, United List, and National Alliance. O. Skudra assumes that “Progressives” could back the coalition without being part of it, but they will get some other benefits.

Experts are expecting K. Karins to lead the next government. S. Kruks warns that the government led by “New Unity” is not going to have new ideas for the economy. M. Kaprans agrees: life and politics are not going to change significantly in Latvia.

Tags: Baltic states , War in Ukraine
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