Latvians vote amid economic downturn

High unemployment, big deficits, and emigration cast shadows over Latvia's elections.


    In May, former Latvian President Valdis Zatlers called for parliament to be dissolved to reduce corruption [EPA]

    This Saturday, Latvian citizens will choose the new members of the country's parliament, called the Saeima. The Saeima contains 100 members of parliament, and its members are elected for four years.

    The previous tenth Saeima survived for just nine months; outgoing Latvian President Valdis Zatlers issued a non-confidence resolution to the parliament, which led to the parliament being dissolved. Hence, the present parliamentary elections.

    Over the 20 years since Latvia regained its independence, the Baltic state has experienced ups and downs. At present, it’s a rather complicated "down". Though growth has become stable recently (at the level of two to three per cent), the country is still under the surveillance of the European Commission, which, along with other donors, provided a loan of €7.5bn ($10.3bn) a couple of years ago, which saved Latvia from defaulting on its debt.

    The unemployment level in Latvia is currently about 10 per cent (and in some regions, even higher), the trade deficit is still big (the country’s imports during the last decade exceeded exports by several million euros), and the Latvian exodus to more wealthy EU member states is becoming frightening.

    In the list of the 500 biggest Eastern and Central European firms, not one is Latvian. Eighty-five per cent of the 70,000 Latvian companies (in a country with 2.2 million people) are classified as small businesses, which employ fewer than 10 workers. Just 0.3 per cent of Latvian companies are classified as big. 

    An aging population provides another big headache for the governing coalition. Its promises to increase pensions are not calming Latvian citizens, who believe that pensions will be further reduced, and sooner, rather than later. 

    Amid the strain of harsh austerity measures imposed by the European Commission, simmering distrust and rising gaps between rich and poor in Latvia is not making the situation any brighter.

    Understandably, this election campaign does not contain much optimism.

    Contenders for a new coalition

    The party leading in the current election cycle is The Harmony Centre, which expects to get about 19 or 20 per cent of the votes. The party's base is primarily Latvia's Russian-speaking population, which makes up almost a third of the population. However, not all ethnically-Russian Latvians are eligible to take part in national elections. The Harmony Centre has 29 MPs in the current Saeima.

    Due to high unemployment and a severe trade deficit, many Latvians are emigrating to wealthier European countries [EPA]

    In second place is Zatler’s Reform Party, which was founded by former Latvian President Valdis Zatlers. It currently polls between 11 and 14 per cent. The party was formed only a couple of years ago, and did not take part in the previous elections.  

    These two parties' popularity has decreased somewhat recently as other parties gained in the polls.

    Among the latter are The Unity Party, which is expected to pull between 10 and 13 per cent of the votes; it is a member of the present governing coalition, with 33 MPs.

    Number four in the parliamentary race is The Union of Greens and Farmers, polling between eight and nine per cent. The party is also a member of present coalition, with 22 MPs in the Saeima. It is unlikely that UGF will even entertain the idea of forming a coalition with the Harmony Centre.

    The final possible member of a new coalition would be the so-called "VL-Party", whose full name is All for Latvia/For Fatherland and Freedom. The party has eight MPs in the current coalition. This party also opposes working with the Harmony Centre. The party currently polls at around six or seven per cent.

    In addition to these five parties, there are also a number of so-called marginal parties. For example, Šlesers' Reform Party currently polls two per cent, which is too low for the necessary five per cent threshold - in Latvia, if a party garners less than five per cent of the vote, it cannot win any seats in the Saeima. In the previous tenth Saeima, the party managed to gain about 7.7 per cent of votes and had eight MPs. Party leader Ainars Šlesers is regarded as one of Latvia's four main oligarchs.    

    Once the final results of the September 17 elections come in, the contemporary political scene in Latvia will become much more definite as parties try to form a new government. Yet voters are discontent: observers note that Latvian citizens are not optimistic that a new, 11th Saeima will fix the country's socioeconomic situation.

    What are the issues?

    Even though Latvia's economy is suffering, along with the rest of the EU, most of the electorate is primarily concerned with the issue of "Latvian occupation". Language is a big issue here: About one third of the Latvian population speaks Russian. Some were born in "Soviet Latvia", and never bothered to learn Latvian. This causes obvious tensions thoughout the country, especially within Latvian-speaking communities. Some political parties have focussed heavily on this issue, because sections of the electorate are concerned about the effects of the country's past on its potential future progress. 

    Latvians will vote on September 17 amid economic troubles and ethnic tensions [EPA]

    The electorate is having difficulty figuring out exactly what each party stands for. However, some differences and specific approaches do exist among the competing parties. Harmony Centre takes a social-democratic approach to politics, using rhetoric that focuses on labour rights, and highlighting Latvia's lack of industry and, therefore, lack of workers. Critics question such rhetoric, arguing that campaigning for workers' rights when unemployment is high and economic growth relatively stagnant seems misguided. However, Harmony Centre does strive for new policy approaches to some of the burning issues of the day in Latvia, such as the re-evaluation of pensions and the country's primary and secondary education systems.

    The Unity Party has recent history on its side. It is confident of its position in the country's political makeup, because many Latvians believe that Unity Party policies helped drag the country out of its previous mire. Its leader, acting Latvian Foreign Minister Mr Valdis Kristovskis, is regarded as one of the best candidates for position of prime minister.

    As for the Union of Greens and Farmers, the party has maintained a minimal position in the country’s elections. However, its leading figure, Mr Aivars Lembergs (the acting mayor of the city of Ventspils) has led an attractive PR campaign for the party. The UGF also recently received a “helping hand” from the Latvian president, who promised to support farmers at the EU headquarters.

    The All for Latvia/For Fatherland and Freedom party is of the opinion that progressive taxation policy can save the country's budget and help fix the economic situation. For the middle class, the idea sounds good; however, affluent sectors of society are not particularly enamored with such policies. 

    Finally, Zatler's Reform Party supports the EU strategy of focussing on science and technological development to create an innovative economy, and give Latvia a competitive edge. Hence, the increased attention for education in most prospective spheres; this approach definitely attracts the electorate's attention.

    Eugene Eteris is the International Editor at the Baltic Course magazine, which covers social and political issues in the Baltic states and the European Union. The author also teaches on the European Studies faculty at Riga Stradins University in Latvia.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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