Latvia – New Parties, Same Old Alliances

Latvia – New Parties, Same Old Alliances

Roland Gladushenko May 2019

New Parties

The 2018 parliamentary elections drastically altered Latvia’s political landscape. Voters punished the three governing parties (Unity-EPP, National Alliance-ECR, Greens & Farmers Union-ALDE) and elected three new parties to the Latvian Parliament (Saeima).

With a total of 7 parties entering the Saeima, the elections produced one of the most fragmented parliaments in Latvian democratic history. Global media outlets attempted to place the election within a broader European context. Two parties and two headline-grabbing ideas dominated international coverage.

One – Latvia has elected a populist party
Two – Latvia has elected a pro-Putin party.

Both statements should be taken with a pinch of salt. Perspective is much needed.

KPV: The Latvian populists?

International broadsheets tend to focus on the populist-mainstream narrative, comparing the newly elected KPV to the populist movements of Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Admittedly, some similarities exist. KPV would like to trim bureaucracy in both Riga and Brussels, but beyond that it is difficult to see what the movement has in common with the aforementioned populist heavyweights. KPV expresses no desire to hold referendums on EU or Eurozone membership.

Listening to their leadership speak, one can’t help but draw parallels between KPV and the pre-Brexit 2015 Conservative party. ECR may prove to be an appropriate home for KPV. Traditionally, only National Alliance (NA) have represented Latvia in the ECR grouping. This time round, if both KPV and NA can galvanise their supporters to come out and vote, the ECR group could claim 2 Latvian MEPs for the first time.

Harmony: the pro-Putin party?

Other media outlets lean towards the NATO vs Russia debate, commenting on the election’s relevance to the Russian occupation of the Crimea and disinformation campaigns in the Baltics. Here, the headlines read “Pro-Russian party wins Latvian election”.

This again is rather misleading. Since 2011, Harmony have come out strongest in three consecutive parliamentary elections, polling highest in 2011 with 28% of the vote.

That said, Harmony has never been in government. This is the greatest ‘red line’ in Latvian politics – during election campaigns, ‘Latvian’ parties will explicitly promise not to work with Harmony, irrelevant of the vote share the ‘pro-Russian’ party receives. National security concerns are often cited to justify the stance, though in recent years the rhetoric has died down on this.

Harmony’s vote share has dropped as supporters grow tired of voting for a party that regularly wins elections, but never governs.

Equally, the assertion that Harmony represents Russian interests is losing ground. The party supports both NATO and EU membership and cut ties with Putin’s United Russia in 2017. That same year, the party joined the S&D grouping in Brussels.  Thanks to Harmony, S&D are almost guaranteed to retain their 1 Latvian MEP.

Collapse of the centre? Not quite

Four years ago, Unity (EPP) claimed 4 out of 8 Latvian seats in the European Parliament. Following his party’s success, former Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis became Commission VP for the Euro and Social Dialogue.

Whilst Dombrovskis represented the European interest as a Commissioner, his rebranded party (New Unity) collapsed at home, polling just 6.7% in the 2018 parliamentary elections.

Yet in 2019 New Unity is polling significantly higher and the Dombrovskis factor could revitalise it, though it is likely to gain just one seat. Remaining seats will be distributed between the liberals (AP!), the New Conservative Party (JKP) and National Alliance (NA), representing ALDE, EPP and ECR respectively. With this in mind, talk of a ‘collapsing centre-ground’ seems premature.

Turnout, turnout, turnout

Following Latvia’s EU accession in 2004, turnout went up in 2009 (53.69%) and down again in 2014 (30.24%). Considering that the 2018 parliamentary elections produced a 54.58% turnout, anything near 40% should be regarded as a success later this month. With Dombrovskis’ profile strengthened as Commissioner, higher turnout will benefit New Unity.

For the first time, it will be possible for Latvians abroad to vote in 45 polling stations, including one in Brussels. KPV’s active social media presence has made them the most popular choice amongst Latvians abroad.

Same Old Alliances

Over the past five years in Latvian politics, everything has changed – and yet, at least geopolitically, nothing has changed. Both KPV and Harmony will continue to support a strong EU/NATO stance against Putin’s Russia.

Unity’s collapse has not enabled the rise of extremes. Instead, it has allowed for a plurality of voices in the centre ground. As tempting as it may be to look for the next Hungary or Italy, Latvia’s fragmented political scene merely represents Europe at large – a dominant centre-right in government, a dwindling socialist party, some ethnic cleavages, and a dash of populism.