Monthly Archives: September 2011

Emergency election result in Latvia 2011

In September 17,  a first time in Latvian history an emergency elections have taken place. The main reason behind it was decision  by ex-president Valdis Zatlers to dismiss the parliament. The official reason was his dissatisfaction with parliament vote that prevented the anti corruption service to make a search parliament in deputy Ainars Šlesers    apartment. Šlesers has been widely known as oligarch with large influence on business and state matters. The ones who voted against the search was members of the Green Farmers Union, Šlesers own party and members of pro-Russian Harmony Center. By this the parliament got itself in conflict with juridical power. Another reason was the unacceptable influence by the major of town Ventspils Aivars Lembergs, who is the leader of Green Farmers Union. In 2010, election Green Farmers scored 22 seats enough to have key vote in any parliament. They joined with party union Unity to make a two-party government.  It was soon apparent that Lembergs pushed a lot of pressure against Unity prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis. Disagreements were on budget issues, pensions and other business matters. So when Valdis Zatlers dismissed the parliament his main slogan was to fight against oligarch rule. That was the official reason, behind was the many speculations of Zatler’s personal motives. He made this move just days before his re-election, in Latvia president is elected by the parliament. It was very likely that parliament may vote against him, so he made the move to avenge the parliament and start his own political carrier. Before he took his seat he was a well known surgeon and he was proposed by the same oligarch parties that he know stood against it. And he really founded his own party and took part in elections. Another more vile reason was Valdis Zatlers desire to bring the Harmony Center in government instead of Green Farmers Union. Hours before his decision he had a conversation with parliament speaker Solvita Aboltiņa (Unity) where he may had asked for this, but when he was turned down he issued new elections so the Harmony Center may win the elections.

The result of his move, was referendum by the people to dismiss the parliament (president only has right to ask people to dismiss the parliament) with 94% for the motion. Then was a short election campaign from August to September. A new force in the election was Zatlers Reform Party. He first desired to involve well-known people from intellectual circles, but when they all decided to not to enter politics, he gathered a large crowd of less known people and ex members of other parties. His proposed candidate for Prime Minister Edmunds Sprūdžs was moderate business man and with only secondary school education. Other parties attempted to gather strength to beat Zatlers party, Unity was the main looser behind the foundation of Zatlers party since they had common ideology and it meant voter theft. Aivars Lembergs was confident to hinder the campaign against him, but more desperate was Ainārs Šlesers who renamed his party as Šlesers Reform party to fight against Zatlers. Two opposite sided parties the National Alliance VL!/TBLNNK a far right party and pro-Russian far left party Harmony Center prepared to take the biggest slice of cake. Harmony Center prepared to win elections, but National Alliance had chance to gain even more power in parliament.

In so the election result goes as follows: Harmony Center won with 28% voters support. Second came Zatlers Reform Party with 20% support. Last election winner Unity was thrown at third place with 18% of votes. The fourth place was taken by the National Alliance with 13% voters support. Green Farmers Union gained 12% of votes and was the last that made above 5% barrier. Šlesers Reform party gained only 2% of votes bringing a devastating defeat for Šlešers. Other minor parties only reached below 1% of support. Because of regular pre-election ratings the parties who do not reach 5% barrier are less reported in media therefore given in lame position from the start. None of these ratings share the real opinion of the voters, so the bias in the ratings are always apparent. For the instance ratings showed that National Alliance would have only 6,5% of the voters support, but in reality the real vote count was much larger. The success of the National Alliance was the main surprise in these elections.

In next common weeks, it will be a question who will the form the government. By the tradition the election winner has right to form the government. But only the president has rights to propose the candidate. The new president Andris Bērziņš has always been mysterious about his moves and may make some surprises. It is possible to form a government with out the Harmony Center by joining Zatlers party, Unity and National Alliance. However will the Latvian parties would continue to stir up the Russian voters? And will the liberal parties would work together with nationalist conservative National Alliance? In last elections excuses were made to not include both Harmony Center and National Alliance in the parliament. While Harmony Center has trouble with acknowledging the occupation of Latvia and drop down the bid for two official languages, the National Alliance is accused of being too radical to be in government in EU member country.

The election results are historic, in first time since 1991, a pro-Russian party with official support by Russian Federation may have a chance to lead the country. However the Latvian parties still has enough power to play their part and prevent Latvia from switching from West to East and make a two language state. If only Latvian electorate would not be so divided by the parties. Zatlers Reform party is one of the reasons behind it that divides Latvian voters. An old fashioned way of divide and conquer has been well-played by Russia in Latvia, and Latvia could be the first state in Baltic region that may fall for it.  It is only the matter of will of Latvian people to protect their culture, language and national interests to prevent this.

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Latvian Political Parties 1918-1934

The election poster of Latvian Farmers Union

As emergency elections in Latvia is coming close and another battle between present day political parties is fought, its worth to remember the times of the first period of Latvian independence from 1918 to 1934. What was common and uncommon in political party system in Latvia. And have present day Latvian politicians have learned something from the mistakes of the past politicians.

It was a peculiarity in Latvia, that very first Latvian political party was on the left-wing. Despite the roots of Latvian nationalism begun to rise in the last quarter of 19 Century it was not yet political, but more culturally based associated with middle class intelligence. In Russian Empire with no real hope for independence more important was the social matters. The growing worker class in the main cities of Latvia and their intellectual supporters found their ideas in teachings in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that seemed a perspective solution for those times. In 1903 in Switzerland Latvian Social Democrat Union (LSDU) was founded.  In 1904 many Socialdemocratic organizations formed the Latvian Social Democratic Workers party (LSDWP). The party was influenced by the Russian Social Democratic Workers party and joined its ranks as Latvian Social Democrats (LSD). LSDU was more nationalistic than LSDWP and desired independence from the Russian Empire. LSDWP strived for autonomous socially progressive Latvia in united Russia. In the end LSDU was a short lived project, however many of its original members like Miķelis Valters, Ernests Rolavs and Kārlis Skalbe became important personalities during the war of independence and later.

The Revolution of 1905 was the first active action time for Latvian Social Democrats. LSD organized demonstrations, strikes and violent actions against Czarist- Baltic German regime. The LSD was the main force behind the revolution. Their goal was to help to topple the Czarist government and fight against the privileged Baltic German minority. The independence was not the main goal at that time. The failure of 1905, a revolution made LSD to go underground. The main leaders were either exiled or sent to Siberia. Also a visible split was seen in LSD as the radical communists begun to gather majority in the party. At this time also few right-wing parties as the Peoples Party and Democratic Union emerged.

The collapse of Russian Empire changed the situation in Latvian politics. Latvian nationalist and right wing elites begun to organize their institutions for forming of national Latvian state. The LSD was against the forming of the Latvian Provisional National Council and stated that they see Latvia as part of a United Russian federation. Despite that LSD members took part in another right wing origination the Democratic Block.  However, a split happened within LSD as the majority of communist minded members broke away. Moderate social democrats remained under LSDWP name. Despite anticommunist notions LSDSP remained hostile to Peoples Council and Karlis Ulmanis Provisional Latvian government and remained in opposition within all War for Freedom.

First right-wing party after February revolution was a Latvian radical democratic party founded in St. Petersburg, its leaders were Gustavs Zemgals and others. The party was dissolved in 1920.  In same time Latvian Independence Alliance with leaders such as Fricis Trasuns. It was also a short-lived party. But it was the Latvian Farmers union (LFU) that become the main force. The main person Karlis Ulmanis became the first prime minister of Latvia. The party fought for national and especially farmers’ interests that were the majority of Latvians of those times. In Moscow prominent people like Atis Kenins, Karlis Skalbe, Janis Akuraters and Karlis Blodnieks organized Latvian National Democratic party. In 1918 in Riga Arveds Bergs and Voldemars Zamuels gathered in Latvian Republican party.

During the war for freedom all parties except LSDWP made national consensus. After the war was won, and parliamentary elections were to take place the consensus ended and fierce rivalry begun. Only LSDWP and LFU remained solid political forces and was to be the main rivals in the future. The first Latvian parliament was the Satversmes Sapulce (Constitutional Assembly)  its main goal was to write new a constitution and make reforms fort the new Latvian state.

Political party election posters in 1928

The law to make new parties was liberal – to register a party only 100 members were needed. And since not all Latvian citizens supported LSDWP and LFU it was an open door to find a countless political parties for elections. It was not only ideological minded parties them political interest groups like Teetotaler party and regional parties. To make it complicated there was no official percent barrier to prevent small time parties from entering the parliament. By this parties that could gather above 1,5% of the people’s votes could have one elected deputy in the parliament. It was a starting point for unstable parliaments and short lasting governments. Also it made possible corruption and machinations within the parliament. However a positive side was for national  minority parties that could get their nationals elected. But on other point it prevented minorities to form united political parties and because of this minorities such as Jews and Russians had dozens of rivaling political parties.

In all five elections on 1920, 1922, 1925, 1928 and 1931 the winners were LSDWP and LFU. Bet almost never they could form majority governments because of the other parties with single elected deputies. Plus LSDWP refrained from taking governmental position because it did not want to work together with right-wing parties and was more comfortable in opposition where it played a pitiful role of governmental destabilization.

LSDWP was the main left-wing party at the time. But their success was hindered by other left-wing groups. Its main rival was the illegal Latvian Communist Party that operated underground, under direct orders from Moscow. The communists made many attempts to form legal radical leftist parties to enter parliament. And in 1928, 1931 these attempts were successful however they ended when 4 members of Radical workers and peasant fraction were excluded from parliament. But it was a sheer truth that LSDWP actually had contact with Soviet secret service and many of them rushed to support the occupation in 1940.  Only two governments were formed together with  LSDWP.  The highest governmental seat they could achieve was honorary chairman of the parliament. Two socialdeomcrats Fridrihs Vesmanis from 1920 t0 1925 and Pauls Kalnins from 1925 to 1934 took the second highest post in Latvian Republic.

LFU gathered large support from farmer and middle class elite. Their main faces were Karlis Ulmanis, Arturs Alberings, Zigfrids Anna Meierovics and Hugo Celmins. Hugo Celmins was the longest serving prime minister in Latvia before the war. The LFU had great connections with big business and was the most wealthiest party at those times. From them Alberts Kviesis was the third president of Latvia.

The third main party was the Democratic Center (DC). They had a chance to form many governments. Within them the Gustavs Zemgals was second elected president of Latvia. DC politics were based on balancing therefore it was controversial and scandalous as they often got themselves caught in corruption scandals.

Latvian New landowner small landowner party was the fourth main party founded in 1924. Their leader Adolfs Blodnieks achieved prime minister seat in 4. Parliament and was a fierce rival for LFU.

An important political factor was the Latgalian parties. Even if Latgalians agreed on being part of Latvia, they’re wowed for autonomy and more political rights for them. The difference in language and religion made them against Latvian political parties and that sparked rivalry. One of the most visible Latgalian leaders was Fricis Trasuns. A load eccentric person Trasuns took part in many affairs about ownership of churches. But Latgalians were not united in their fight as they separated in many parties.

A common sight was many christian minded parties. Gustavs Reinhards led the Christian Union. He was a modern conservative, however also a staunch anti-Semite. He was also accused of supporting the Baltic German barons. Also important players were nationalist parties. National Alliance lead by Arveds Bergs was the main nationalist force in the parliament. Arveds Bergs was first who opposed the parliamentary system by claiming “The constitution is not working”. He however did not any steps to overthrow the parliament, instead he was who warned about the coming  coup in 1934. His main mistake was the support of German ownership of the main Riga churches as the majority was to give churches to Latvians. National Alliance was too moderate for many radical nationalist organizations like Latvian National Club and Thundercross who engaged in antisocial behavior and sparked pro fascist agenda.

Jewish party election poster

Latvia was home to many national minority groups. Germans, Jews, Russians and Poles were the most active of them in politics. Germans consisted only 2% of the population but could elect at least six deputies. This was due to their political unity.   All German political parties always formed a single list for the elections. Their main leader was Paul Schiemann an intelligent liberal democrat a staunch defender of minority rights. He supported the Latvian state but was for minority autonomy within it. The Germans did not have any left wingers because the majority of Germans were from noble families that we’re strictly against socialism. Jews consisted 4% the population but were divided between right wingers, religious, Zionists and leftists. Even so they always elected at least 3 deputies. Most visible Jewish leaders were  Modehai Dubin, Mordehai Nurok and Max Lazerson. Russians were the largest minority in Latvia a 10% of all Latvian citizens. Despite that they had very poor results in elections. Their parties were also divided and Russians were politically apathetic. Only 63% of Latvian Russians were literate so it was hard to get enough voter support. Plus since many them were simple workers they rather voted for LSDWP or supported communism. A minority of Russians were members of the old czarist elite or members of White guard exile. They were nationalist and monarchist minded  who dreamed about the restoration of the Russian Empire. The Polish minority was also active but their results were not consistent and also had issues with politic division.

The party system in Latvia was liquidated by Karlis Ulmanis in 15, May 1934. He dissolved the parliament and installed himself as an authoritarian leader with his loyal government. Later he claimed himself as the president of Latvia. Ulmanis banned all political parties including his own Latvian Farmers Union. It may be so that later Ulmanis planed to make his own single state party, but such plans were never realized.

In the times of Latvian democracy every major party had its own weekly newspaper. They were not just only one number editions before elections but regular editions with large reader audience. Also non party newspapers were affected by political parties. Money and power was not strangers to each other. Corruption, rich party supporters and even support by foreign secret service was a common sight.

From today’s perspective not much has changed. There are still too many parties. However modern-day parties are not mass parties, in past LSDWP and LFU had more than 10 000 members. Today the party member count does not exceed 1000  member count. Parties are still unfree from business interests and corruption. Also the Latvian society never has fully trusted and supported the Latvian political system. However before the war the participation in elections was much higher from 80% to 70″% where today is only about 60%. The number of parties was also higher in the first years after 1992, but now only 13 parties take part in emergency elections.   It’s mainly because of 5% barrier that prevents small time parties to enter parliament. Because of this during the last decade parliament is more stable and government crashes are more rare. But even with this  in the last election the election outcome paralyzed the stability in the parliament when the prime minister was forced to take pressure from the main Latvian oligarch that resulted the emergency elections.

Selected Sources:

Freivalds, Osvalds. (1961) Latviešu polītiskās partijas 60 gados. Copenhagen: Imanta.

Mednis, Imants, Antonēvičs Mednis.(2001) Politiskās partijas Latvijā. In book: Zīle, Ļubova (Ed.) Latvija divos laikposmos. 1918-1928 un 1991-2001. Riga: Latvijas Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds.

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