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The Puzzle of Latvian Government

On October 6, 2018, Latvia held a parliamentary election, one hundred years after the nation declared independence. However, on November 18, when this event was celebrated, a new government still hadn’t formed in Latvia. This happened neither by Christmas nor for the New Year. At the time of writing, Latvia, unprecedently, still does not have a new government.

Fall of a giant

In recent years the centre-right, liberal-conservative Unity (V-EPP) party dominated Latvian politics. It was in power during the difficult period of Latvia’s recovery after the global economic crisis of 2008. Furthermore, in the 2014 European Parliament election the party received half of all MEPs, thanks to the popularity of its former Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who now serves as Vice-President of the European Commission for the Euro and Social Dialogue.

However, due to several strategic mistakes, permanent internal disagreements, as well as a number of major scandals including accusations of law-breaking, Unity’s ratings started to fall very fast. As a result, in early 2016, the party lost the post of Prime Minister to its coalition partner the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS-G/EFA). The future is bleak for the party that once dominated the Latvian political landscape.

Long election campaign

The election campaign began unusually early, almost a year before polling day. In a hurry, the government tried to pass belated reforms, while opposition politicians attempted to unite their forces. The rhetoric on the campaign trail was surprisingly tough and extremely aggressive. Two new parties – populist, anti-establishment Who Owns the State? (KPV-*) and liberal-conservative  New Conservative Party (JKP-*) also emerged onto the political scene. KPV blamed the failures of the country on former communists holding positions of power, proposed to reduce the number of government ministries to six and constantly attacked the media, accusing them of bias. Meanwhile, JKP concentrated on accusing the ruling parties of corruption and only working in the interest of party sponsors and oligarchs, at the same time offering to significantly increase the state’s social spending.

ZZS politicians presented themselves as champions of “good deeds”, while Unity rebranded itself as New Unity (JV-EPP), however, this failed to avoid a split: some of its prominent members joined recently created liberal Development/For! (AP!-ALDE) alliance, others became a part of pro-regional Latvian Association of Regions (LRA-*).

New balance of power

October 6 election dramatically changed the balance of power in Saeima (the Latvian Parliament). All parties of the previous ruling coalition performed terribly. ZZS lost half of its MPs, while JV’s faction decreased three times, becoming the weakest party in the new Saeima. Smaller losses were suffered by national-conservative National Alliance (NA-ECR), the third governing party. Leading positions were taken by the newcomers of the election race — KPV, JKP and AP!.

It is notable that first place in this election was taken with nearly 20% by center-left, social-democratic party Harmony (S-S&D), whose main support comes from the Russian minority in Latvia. However, all other parties refused to cooperate with S. This is largely due to the fact S is accused of pro-Kremlin views (the party previously had a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia) and corruption (such as that surrounding a public transport company owned by S-led Rīga City Council). S remains in opposition, as it has been for many years.

Hard negotiations

The formation of a government in a fragmented Parliament was complicated by the lack of experience in the “new parties”, as well as no clear natural leader emerging. According to Latvian legislation, the President has the right to choose whom to entrust the formation of the government to; on November 6 President Raimonds Vējonis chose JKP leader Jānis Bordāns and gave him two weeks to create a government.

A former Minister of Justice and ex-NA member, Bordāns began government formation with enormous enthusiasm. He invited all parties (elected in Saeima) except S. Very soon Bordāns removed ZZS from negotiations, due to their alleged ties with accused criminal oligarch Aivars Lembergs, but he appeared not long later with a draft government declaration with ministries distributed between co-operating parties. Bordāns’s declaration, however, contained intentions to carry out activity that would significantly increase budget expenditures. As a result, NA, AP! and JV left the negotiations. In addition, these parties stated that the JKP negotiation style was totally unacceptable: Bordāns, allegedly, perceived any disagreements with his position as a “conspiracy of oligarchs”. The JKP leader was forced to inform the President that he would not be able to form a government in the allotted time.

After consultations with the parties, on November 26, President Vējonis entrusted the next nominee – KPV leader Aldis Gobzems – to create a government in a further two weeks. Gobzems led negotiations with all parties (excluding S), paying a lot of attention to organizational issues. KPV, despite their constant calls for transparency, suggested closed negotiations. This request was quickly rebuffed by all other parties. However, new obstacles appeared in Gobzems’s way to the post of Prime Minister. Gobzems, as a lawyer, was a member of the Collegium of Sworn Advocates. As the talks continued, the Collegium decided to exclude Gobzems from its ranks, because of “numerous offences” during his professional career. Moreover, SAB (literally “Constitution Protection Bureau” – the Latvian Security Service) still haven’t given the KPV leader access to various State Secrets, a crucial role of the potential head of the government. AP! most actively pointed out these problems, so KPV decided to throw it out of the negotiations. Soon JKP announced its refusal to cooperate with ZZS and the talks, in fact, stopped. In the last days of his expiring two-week term, Gobzems hurled many alternative proposals (among others, he proposed to form a non-partisan government), but no party responded to these proposals. Eventually, President withdrew the nomination of Gobzems.

The latest SKDS poll shows this picture:  all the parties refused to talk with S, that’s why the long struggle to form a government benefits this centre-left force. S is once again likely to become the major opposition party as many disappointed voters move to it.

Is a political miracle possible?

There remained a representative of the third, so-called, “new party” – former MEP Artis Pabriks from AP!. However, he refused the nomination, citing the reluctance of KPV and JKP to see him as Prime Minister. NA also were not ready to put forward their candidate. It seemed the situation was at a standstill.  Many in the media discussed the possibility of snap elections.

But then, on January 7, negotiations were taken over by MEP Krišjānis Kariņš, the leader of the smallest party in the Saeima – JV. This is the same party that suffered huge losses in the election and fallen from political giant to become a tiny player. Could a member of a minor party became a Prime Minister? Can such government be effective and durable? Only time will tell.

Europe Elects will continue to cover developments in Latvia. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest from Latvia, and across the EU.

Antons is a member of the Europe Elects team, working as a Data Analyst specialising in the politics of Latvia and Eastern Europe as a whole.