Election Latvia´s newest saviour

Populist temptation has always haunted Latvia. Not less now, when voters are struggling to recover from Europe´s deepest GDP-fall. “People want change”, says professor Runcis who fears that Zatlers can not deliver that, and so distrust of politicians might grow. The political scientist is worried about the ex-presidents lack of competence in the economic field, and he is critical of Zatler´s political ambitions.

Published on balticworlds.com on August 10, 2011

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If you can´t beat them, join them.

During four years as president Valdis Zatlers struggled in vain, trying to change Latvia´s political culture. Having left office, he has now joined the lot and is playing by the rules of the game.

His newly founded Zatler´s Reform Party aims at winning a snap election, called for September 17.

The election campaign is supposed to address Latvia´s enormous political challenges: high unemployment, huge emigration, widespread corruption, ethnic division and democratic deficit.

But time is short and party coffers are empty. Political experts fear negative and populist electioneering, at a critical hour when Latvia would need a stable course and viable growth to escape from the region´s worst economic crisis.

“Politicians don´t know how to solve the difficult problems. The campaign will be about oligarchs and the influence from Moscow”, believes political sciencist and professor Andris Runcis at University of Latvia.

The snap election is Valdis Zatler´s design. Being aware that parliament (on June 2) would not vote him into a second term as president, Zatlers decided to propose dissolution of the legislature.

His staff already knew that it would take a miracle to reelect Zatlers. “We knew of other plans from the political parties”, says Zatlers advisor Roberts Kilis who admits that the former president had his own party and election campaign in mind, when he decided to dismiss the Saeima.

Zatlers´ also knew that his decision would be popular among voters. Only a tiny minority trusted the politicians they had elected less than eight months earlier. Their dismissal was confirmed in a referendum on July 23, when a distrustning 94 percent voted to disband parliament. The same day Zatlers launched his own political party and named it after himself: Zatler´s Reform Party.

Critics claim populism. Zatlers used to critizise parties pulled by “locomotives”. Now he seems to like the idea. And Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’ Unity party accuses Zatlers of deception about his motives, in saying that parliament had to be dissolved only because of corrupt oligarch influence, while him also had his own party in mind.

Dombrovskis has lost in opinion polls, and Zatler´s is in the lead. But the ex-president rejects that the dismissal of parliament was his personal victory.

“It was a victory for the people. It was a vote for change, a hope that change is coming”, says Valdis Zatlers, 56.

Fighting oligarch power (wealth amassed in shady privatisation schemes and used for political influence) is Zatler´s expressed motive for his dramatic actions. He has castigated parliament for going with the oligarch parties in several votes against the rule of law, and he has rebuked Prime Minister Dombrovskis for governing with the oligarch Aivars Lembergs´party, thus losing the fight against corruption. (See “The Baltic Berlusconi”on this website)

Zatlers presents himself as the knight of light and law.

“We want an end to the old kind of shady deals. We will not cooperate with any oligarch parties”, says the ex-president.

Zatlers claimed that he would not even engage in debates or political talks with oligarchs before election. Would he not take part in television debates at the end of the election campaign? Of course he would, explained his staff, in one of several turnabouts that has come from the juvenile party. Zatler´s lack of political experience began to show.

Photos published recently show Zatlers with the oligarch Ainars Slesers at a dinner table of a musical festival. According to Zatlers the rendezvous was a provocation by Slesers. The latter claimed that the two of them had serious discussions and that Zatler´s asked Slesers how one becomes successful in politics.

The credibility of Zatler´s political message was challenged. Earlier on Zatlers declared that he had to dissolve the Saeima, when parliamentarians refused to allow the anticorruption bureau to search Slesers´ home. Now Zatlers sat down with the villain himself.

The photos of Zatlers together with Slesers captured the deep complexity of Latvian politics, and the difficulty for a newcomer to change the rules. According to political analyst Aigars Freimanis, ex-president Zatlers lacks not only political experience but also consistency. Slesers, on the other hand, is a seasoned and cunning politician, now having renamed his party Slesers´ Reform Party, to expose Zatler´s “hypocrisy”.

Zatler´s Reform Party programme is presented as a manifest for change.

”Latvia has suffered a very serious economic crisis, and the economy has to be developed again. The political system must be reformed”, says Valdis Zatlers.

Asked to spell out the reforms Zatlers cites several changes in the law making process, ones that he proposed as president. But he gives no striking visions for Latvia as a land of attractive opportunities that may appeal to hundreds of thousands of Latvians who left for greener pastures in Europe.

Zatlers has an ambition to save Latvia, but his party programme is general in terms, not very innovative or bold: balance the budget, reduce government debt, use state resources more efficiently, reform higher education, press down unemployment. Taxes on labour should be decreased, while property tax and VAT rates should increase.

Most of this could be found in the programmes of other center-right and liberal parties that have come and gone since independence 20 years ago. And most of Latvia´s parliamentary elections were won by fresh created parties, lead by self proclaimed political saviours, offering new solutions to Latvia´s old problems of poverty, corruption, ethnic divide and educational crisis.

Populist temptation has always haunted Latvia. Not less now, when voters are struggling to recover from Europe´s deepest GDP-fall.

 “People want change”, says professor Runcis who fears that Zatlers can not deliver that, and so distrust of politicians might grow. The political scientist is worried about the ex-presidents lack of competence in the economic field, and he is critical of Zatler´s political ambitions.

“On April 26 he spoke at the University of Latvia. Then parliament was ok. One month and two days later the same parliament was not ok. Why? Because it was not going to reelct Zatlers as president”, says professor Runcis.

More than others, Prime Minister Dombrovskis and his center-right liberal Unity risks losing to Zatlers in the election. Dombrovskis led harsh austerity measures to save Latvian economy and is now paying a political price, while the newcomer Zatlers gets a free ride.

But secretly Dombrovskis probably agrees with Zatlers, that their two similar parties will win more votes together, than Unity would have done on it´s own. In becoming the largest political bloc, they are favorites to lead the next government.

“Dombrovskis might be prime minister again out of experience and competence. With Zatlers as prime minister, Latvia would be in for bad times”, claims professor Runcis.

But a third party will be needed for a majority coalition. And here is where Valdis Zatlers might be able to make the most noted difference. Zatlers has ruled out cooperation with any oligarch party, which means that Harmony Center, dominated by Russian speaking politicians, might be considered. Valdis Zatlers may become the first Latvian speaking politician drawing a red line for oligarchs in government and opening an historic door to national power-sharing for the Russian minority.

The social democratic Harmony Center is likely to be the biggest single party in the election, maneuver with Zatlers´ Reform Party probably in second place and Dombrovskis´ Unity maybe third. Together the three parties would make a strong majority in parliament – mathematically.

Politically it might be weak. Dombrovskis fairly nationalistic Unity is disunited over cooperation with Harmony Center. Latvian as the only official language and recognition of Soviet rule as occupation were strict preconditions for any coalition negotiations after last exlection. Zatler´s party may possibly leave more room for maneuver and displays a “pleasantly surprising lack of patriotic and nationalistic slogans”, as noted by a Harmony Center parliamentarian.

Before his presidency Valdis Zatlers was Latvia´s foremost trauma surgeon. He was picked as candidate for the state´s top post by the same oligarch parties he now vows to fight. Zatlers´ lack of political experience was supposed to make him harmless, but his self confidence grew over time.

In his last year as president Zatlers made a succesful state visit to Moscow and helped to improve Latvia´s relations with Russia. This might have been his main achievement in office.

”During my precidency Latvia has had four years of very succesful foreign policy, both in relation to our neighbors and to our strategic partners. We have very good relations to Sweden, Poland, and Germany and to our big neighbor Russia. Latvia has the region´s most succesful balance in foreign policy”, says the ex-president.

He promotes the same balance at home.

”Ethnicity is not a political question. We do not draw ethnic lines”, says Zatlers.

But others do. The National Alliance is a recent merger between the traditional Latvian nationalists in Fatherland and Freedom, and the more extrem lot in All for Latvia. The latter have the upper hand, and the alliance´s main priority is to prevent Harmony Center from entering the government.

The Latvian nationalists will fight hard to preserve their historical role in government coalitions, where they used to have de facto veto power, despite their small numbers. Observers expect an election campaign on protection of the Latvian language, recognition of  Soviet rule as occupation, and defence against Moscow´s political and economic influence in Latvia.

Meanwhile the population is shrinking by extensive emigration, and still unemployment is high. Export companies gain speed, but a large part of the people does not benefit from the new economic growth. Low public wages nourishes corruption, and an increasing number of workers are illegally employed.

There is a long road to equal conditions for everyone, a first principle of Zatler´s Reform Party programme. But Zatlers may have taken an important step with the ambition to engage the Russian minority in government. Latvia has to get rid of it´s democratic deficit to advance into it´s European future.

Harmony Center wants a moratorium of three years (until next election) on language and history issues. Politicians should use the respite to engage in urgent social reforms, says party leader Nil Ushakov, mayor of Riga. Then, if everyone has enough to eat, national and historical issues could be adressed again, Ushakov suggested recently.

That may sound as a modest proposal. But Latvian debate is seldom modest, and certainly not on national issues.

An absurd proposal, replied foreign minister Girts Valdis Kristovkis, nationalist gate keeper of the governing Unity party.

After 20 years of independence Latvian politics is still occupied by the past. It remains to be seen if Valdis Zatlers´ reforms include an escape road into to the future.

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