Latvia: All Change

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Latvia: All Change

Prime minister’s party disappears from parliament as Latvian
voters plump for new parties and the former governor of the central

Latvian voters from across the political
spectrum have spoken loud and clear: Out with the old, in with the
new. Near-final results from the 5 October general elections gave
nearly half the seats in the 100-member parliament, the Saeima, to
new parties.

As political novices celebrated, Prime Minister
Andris Berzins and his liberal Latvia’s Way (LC) mourned. The
party’s failure to win a single seat brought to an end nine years
in power.

The Central Election Commission reported that a
newcomer, the center-right New Era (JL) party, had won a plurality
of 26 seats. Next, with an estimated 24 deputies, was the leftist
political union For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL),
followed by the conservative People’s Party (TP), led by former
three-time prime minister Andris Skele, which was winning in 21
races. Final results will not be announced until votes from abroad
are counted in about a week’s time.

Two more new parties will also be represented in
the new Saeima: the Greens’ and Farmers’ Union (ZZS) and the
Christian-oriented conservative Latvia’s First Party (LPP), with 12
seats and 10 seats respectively.

Another veteran party and member of the present
governing coalition, the conservative nationalist For Fatherland
and Freedom/LNNK (TB/LNNK), just managed to top the 5 percent of
the popular vote required to gain seats in the Saeima. The latest
results gave the party just 7 seats.

Analysts said voters were fed up with old
political players and, as they have in past elections, again put
their cards on new blood. “I voted for New Era because I believe
they will bring changes to Latvia,” said sales manager Juris Kalns.
“[Party leader Einars] Repse will fight corruption and bring better
times for all Latvians.”

Lawyer Juta Viksna also had high expectations
for New Era. “I am pleased that voters punished the so-called old
soldiers [LC and TB/LNNK]. They have been in power for too long to
remember the lives of ordinary people,” she said. “New Era will
clean up the political scene, making politics more transparent and

Many voters admitted their shock at the defeat
of Latvia’s Way.

“I feel for them,” said a student, Zane Lapa,
who voted for the party. “I can’t imagine the Foreign Ministry
without [outgoing Foreign Minister] Indulis Berzins.”

Latvia’s Way members tried to banish
disappointment by reflecting on what the party had achieved.

“We have done our work, and it seems that people
want others to take the helm,” Ivars Godmanis, the country’s first
prime minister after Latvia regained independence, told Latvian
State Television on election night. Foreign Minister Berzins took
the long view. “Nobody will remember whether we got into parliament
or not, whether we topped the 5 percent barrier or not. But even
after 25 years, people will remember when and why Latvia joined the
European Union,” he said. Winning membership in the EU and NATO has
dominated the ruling party’s policy since 1993.

Latvian Way’s election disaster can partly be
attributed to a scandal that broke less than a week before voting

Interior Minister Mareks Seglins of the
coalition member People’s Party alleged that LC members were behind
the appearance of defamatory leaflets against his party. Prime
Minister Berzins then asked for Seglins’ resignation on the grounds
that he had sought to gain political advantage through his position
as head of the Latvian police by ordering the arrest of several LC
members. Berzins also criticized the minister for giving his
opinion that the LC was involved in the leaflets before the
investigation was complete.

Observers say the scandal forced many voters to
reconsider their attitudes toward both parties. “It showed that
party interests are the No. 1 priority for ministries. It also put
the LC in an unpleasant light, revealing some deep problems in
party discipline,” Lolita Cigane, a political scientist working
with Soros Foundation Latvia, told TOL. “The scandal proved how
politicized and degraded the whole system is and made many voters
believe in the promises of the new parties.”

New Era’s leader, former Bank of Latvia
president Einars Repse, said he is ready to form a new government
of those parties willing to help fulfill his pre-election

“We invite all right-wing political parties to
consider the constructive grounds for working in a new type of
government. … Such a government must be open, honest,
effective–meaning professional. We have to root out corruption so
that Latvia’s people can be proud of our cabinet,” Repse told his
party on election night.

The election outcome is unlikely to cause a
major shift in the country’s Western-oriented foreign policy, even
though the left-wing PCTVL has in the past flirted with Moscow’s
disapproving views on the Baltic states joining NATO. Some analysts
believe the union may split into pro-NATO and anti-NATO factions.
The day after the election, party leader Janis Jurkans said it was
politically impossible to ignore the will of one in four of
Latvia’s voters.

The ZZS may become an obstacle in the path
toward EU accession. The party’s election platform supported a
referendum to establish conditions for possible EU membership. The
party’s calls for equal treatment of Latvia’s farmers could also
make the final EU negotiation process trickier.

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