Ungainly Coalition Tipped To Take the Reins in Latvia

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Ungainly Coalition Tipped To Take the Reins in
Latvia

A coalition of conservatives–along with farmers
and Greens–looks set to form Latvia’s next government, one that
may face many obstacles to serving a full four-year term. President
Vaira Vike-Freiberga is expected to ask the New Era (JL) party
leader, Einars Repse, to be prime minister. The Christian-oriented
conservative Latvia’s First Party (LLP), the conservative
nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (TB/LNNK), and the
Greens’ and Farmers’ Union (ZZS) have agreed to form a coalition
with the JL. Together, the four parties won 55 seats in the
100-member parliament (Saeima), according to provisional results
released by the Central Election Commission.

If the expected coalition is formed, the leftist
union For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL) and the
conservative People’s Party (TP), led by former three-time Prime
Minister Andris Skele, will remain in opposition.

Politicians and analysts alike are dubious about
the prospective government’s chances.

“This coalition is not the most logical one from
either the ideological or the arithmetical aspect,” said Janis
Ikstens, a political scientist at the Baltic Institute of Social
Sciences. “From the ideological aspect, the coalition of the JL,
TP, and TB/LNNK would be more logical; their ideologies are
closer.” The proposed coalition, however, could face “serious
disagreements between the partners, for example, on the health care
system, attitude toward the European Union, and bureaucracy.”

The EU-skeptical ZZS pressed for equal treatment
of Latvian and EU farmers in its campaign, while the other would-be
coalition partners strongly supported EU membership. Another source
of tension could arise from Repse’s calls for a head of government
with broader authority, including the right to dismiss any minister
or state official.

“Repse has said that he will simply fire
ministers if he’s disappointed with their work and invite another
party to join the coalition,” Vidzeme University political
scientist Artis Pabriks said. “But that’s not the way to do it in
politics. Parties are not substitutes who sit on the bench waiting
for a chance to play.”

Pabriks is also concerned about Repse’s plan to
revamp the cabinet. “Repse wants to increase the number of
ministries. But, as I see it, it’s not because there is a pragmatic
need to do so, but mostly because Repse wants to dominate the
significant [policy areas], and also needs to satisfy the ambitions
of his coalition members–at the cost of the taxpayers,” he
said.

“This coalition has a dramatic lack of
experience in practical politics,” Ikstens said. “So I would guess
that the new government will have tough times, especially since
there are more experienced politicians in the opposition.”

Repse’s campaign promise not to bring existing
parties and ministers into his government went the way of many
campaign promises. The nationalist TB/LNNK was part of the previous
government, and it appears that party member Girts Valdis
Kristovskis may keep his job as defense minister, at least until
the November NATO summit in Prague, when Latvia expects to be
handed an invitation to join the alliance.

Although his party is likely to be in the next
cabinet, TB/LNNK leader Maris Grinblats resigned his post.
Grinblats has called for “new blood” in the party.

Whatever the outcome of talks to form the next
government, one party will definitely not be represented: Latvia’s
Way (LC), whose failure to top the 5 percent barrier means that the
party that has been in power since 1993 won’t even have a deputy in
the next Saeima.

“The election outcome is not satisfactory,”
Prime Minister Andris Berzins observed laconically. Berzins also
said he would step down from the post of party leader.

Observers put the Latvia’s Way disaster down to
its inability to get its message across to Latvia’s voters, who in
this election once again showed their reluctance to rely on the
political status quo.

“Although the LC put practically all its cards
on the EU as its greatest achievement, the party did not try to
show the Latvian people what benefits they could earn” from EU
membership, Ikstens said. “These issues were addressed on a very
abstract level–you’ll have bigger wages, pensions, etc. They did
not mention, for example, money from SAPARD [an EU program for
agricultural and rural development] or structural funds that will
come with the EU.”

Sociologist Arnis Kaktins commented that
Latvians, after the tough times they have been through since
achieving independence, still trust in miracles when they cast
their ballots.

“You can’t really blame them for their
hopes–what if we win in the lottery, what if we vote for the right
people who will do everything for us,” he told RFE/RL.

Pabriks stressed that the election results
revealed the low level of political culture and democracy in
Latvia. “Eleven years after regaining independence, people have not
realized that radical changes are not possible unless people
participate in the political process every day, not only once in
four years during elections.” Although he said he hoped the
political culture would mature by the next scheduled parliamentary
election in 2006, there are huge choices to be made before
then.

“The meaning of the next four years for Latvia’s
future can’t be exaggerated–major education reform [introducing
Latvian as the sole language of instruction in schools], NATO, and
the EU,” he said. “If these new populist parties mess it up, we
will have a very hard time fixing it.”


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