Tag Archives: Latvian elections

Latvian Parliament and Governments 1920-1934

The main building of the Latvian parliament Saeima in 1920-1934

The main building of the Latvian parliament Saeima in 1920-1934

When on 18 November 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed it was indented as a democratic republic with free elections and equal political rights for all. But, Latvians had no experience in this as they never had a real chance for the sovereign government for many centuries. Despite all the difficulties Latvians managed to make one of the most democratic constitutions in whole Europe. Five parliaments were elected without serious voting violations. The governments however were another story as rivalry between numerous political parties made short-lived governments and political instability. The intrigues, treachery and personal ambitions lead to end of Latvian democracy in 15 May 1934. However, we cannot say that Latvian parliamentary system was deeply flawed as Latvia managed to achieve many successes and could achieve even without the coup of 15 May.

During the war for independence the official pre-parliamentary body that was responsible for the Provisional government was the Peoples Council. On December 2 1918 council gave the order to its Constitutional commission in two weeks time to make provisions for elections of the Constitutional Assembly. In Latvian the constitution is called Satversme the word that originated from the early days of the Latvian ancestors. However, the Bolshevik invasion halted these preparations for elections. After Latvian Provisional Government returned to Riga on 16 July 1919 again a new order was made to prepare a special draft for the election law.

The law was issued on September 27 1919. The Constitutional Assembly was to be elected in general, equal, direct and proportional elections by voters of equal gender from 21 years. Citizenship was given to those persons and their descendants who lived in Latvia until 1 August 1914. Latvia was divided into five electoral districts with defined number of elected seats in Riga 22, Vidzeme 37, Semigallia 26, Courland 26 and Latgalia – 39.  The elections were set for a time when whole Latvia will be liberated from the enemy. There were still Bolshevik forces in Latgalia.

The liberation came in 1920 and Provisional governments issued the elections for the Constitutional Assembly on 17 -18 April. Two main contestants were the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDWP) and Latvian Farmers Union (LFU). LSDWP had its roots since 1905 and after falling out with Bolsheviks they supported the independent Latvia. LFU was lead by Kārlis Ulmanis the Prime Minister of the Provisional government. However, it was not a two-party contest as the liberal election law allowed only 100 petitions to form a party list and there was no percent barrier. Because of this numerous Latvian parties also took part, along with Baltic German, Russian and Jewish national lists. Also many regional like Latgalian parties took part. A two-party system in Latvia was impossible as there were too many personal interests and ambitions in many Latvian, not to forget the national minorities.

Despite the fact that some areas in Northern Latvia were unable to vote because of the presence of the Estonian forces, the election turnout was high: 84,88% of registered voters took part. There was some interference from Bolshevik activists, even failed assassination attempt of Kārlis Ulmanis. However the elections were successful and the LSDWP won by 38,66%, LFU gained 28,36%. Third came the Latgalian Farmers party. Many Latvian parties won three to single seats. Jews gained eight seats from different parties, six Germans and four Russians and one Pole also were elected. Six female deputies were elected including notable writer the wife of Jānis Rainis Aspazija (E, Rozenberga). Later in November after the Estonian army left the elections were held in areas where they originally could not be held. With that the first Latvian parliament had 152 members.

The new parliament was called to work for the first time in  May 1 1920. Jānis Čakste was elected the president of the assembly. Kārlis Ulmanis resigned from his head of the Provisional Government post. The main goal of the Constituent Assembly was to write the Satversme – Latvian constitution. The working place for the Assembly was the former house of Riga Chivalry at Jēkabs street 11.

The first session of the Contutional Assembly

The first session of the  Constitutional Assembly

On  June 11 1920 Kārlis Ulmanis again took the post of the Prime Minister. The first goal was to finish the peace talks with Soviet Russia and Germany that resulted in success. Then next and most important target was the Agricultural reform. Land had to be distributed to the Latvian nation to rebuild the country. Before the war the major part of agricultural lands belonged to Baltic German nobles. Now the Latvian government took away the most from them leaving only their mansions and land of 50 hectares. It was painful but right decision as Latvians at last could freely maintain their own land. That however left a rather hateful Baltic German minority.

The Satversme was passed on  February 15 1922. It stated that Latvia is a democratic republic in where the sovereign power belongs to the people of Latvia. The parliament was named Saeima and was to be elected for three years in the same matter as the Assembly. The size of the parliament was 100 seats. During the work of the Assembly first government change was witnessed as Kārlis Ulmanis was forced to step down leaving his college Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics to take charge. The LSDWP split in two fractions as more progressive right wing social democrats left the main party. Kārlis Ulmanis deeply regretted his loss of power and that was the beginning of his year long disappointment of the parliamentary system.

The first Saeima was elected in 7 -8 October. It was rumored that originally the election date was set for September 30, however because of the Jewish festival Sukkot the date was moved to October. It has been the official election month since then. 82,2% people took part in the elections. LSDWP won by 30,56%, their splinter party social democrats “minors” gained 6,26%. LFU won 16,77% seats. Their main rivals were the Democratic Center (DC) and Latvian New Farmers party (LNFP). Also Nonparty nationalist block and Christian Democratic Union gained scores. The Germans gained the most seats also Jews, Poles and Russians were elected. The Germans had united party list while Jews and Russians had many rivaling lists. No female candidates made in parliament.

The first Chairman of Saeima also the formally second man after the president was social democrat Frīdrihs Vesmanis. He was later replaced with party member Pauls Kalniņš. On November 14 1922 Jānis Čakste was elected as the first Latvian president.

Čakste was responsible for nominating the Prime Minister; the parliament had to approve his proposed government. After many failed talks with party leaders, the independent Jānis Pauļuks was chosen as the compromise figure. His government included LSDWP and worked for five months. After right wing activists caused riots in LSDWP lead demonstration, the social democrats left the coalition in protest. He was then replaced by LFU leader Meierovics on June 28 1923. After few months social democrats deposed him in revenge for assault against their two deputies done by the officers of the Latvian army. Social Democrats arranged government by independent Voldemārs Zāmuels, he was supported by them, but they did not part in the government. His government lasted from  January 24 1924 until  December 19 1924 when LFU again won the upper hand by installing their member Hugo Celmiņš as the PM. Despite the rivalry First Saeima managed to form the provisions for ministry work and passed the Conscription law. Also laws regarding unions, societies and political organizations were finished. The new law of the press was liberal and friendly to the emerging Latvian press industry.

The elections for the Second Saeima took place in 1925 3-4 October. The activity dropped to 74,89% 141 electoral lists were submitted and only 48 of them entered the parliament. That was usual for those times and nobody wanted to change that. LSDWP won again in 31,36%, the “social democrats minors” gained 3,61% much lower than last time. LFU won 15,3 %, Catholic and Christian Farmers Union was second in the right wing party list. DC and LNFP gained some seats along with many other single mandate right wing parties. Five Germans, five Jews, four Russians and two Poles were elected. Belorussian and Estonian lists failed to enter the parliament.

New parliament elected Jānis Čakste as the president for the second term; he died in office on March 14 1927. After many failed attempts an independent Gustavs Zemgals was elected.

The new parliament had problems forming a government as in the same night of 22-23 December two governments were proposed. First was Voldemārs Zāmuels who was declined and then Kārlis Ulmanis government formed a minority government. He could hold office for only four and half months. On 4 May 1926 LFU managed to form government lead by Arturs Alberings. On December 17 1926 he was replaced by the leader of the “social democrats minors” Marģers Skujenieks who formed the leftist government. LSDWP with the help of their splinter force again entered the government. After the DC who supported the leftists switched sides the government collapsed. On January 24 1928 DC member Pēteris Juraševskis formed the right wing government and included Baltic Germans in the coalition.

The greatest test for the Saeima was the amendment in the citizenship law that allowed people and their descendants living in Latvia before 1881 gain citizen rights. That sparked large protests from nationalists who feared that large numbers of Jews will gain citizen rights. Protests caused referendum against the amendment that was labeled “Jew law”. However, the protesters could not gather necessary votes to halt the citizenship reforms. Another issue was a trade agreement with the Soviet Union that caused large controversy. Achievement was reforms in social policies and healthcare.

Third Saeima was elected in October 1928. Despite obvious flaws in the election law little was done to stop the influx of the mini party lists and fragmentation of the Latvian political system continued. LSDWP gained 24,5% a great drop in popularity caused by failed government and appearance of more radical leftist movements. Leftist workers list gained 5%. The radical socialist movements were actually legal covers of the Latvian Communist Party that was illegal. Its main goal was the breakdown of the Latvian state. Right wing parties kept their ranks, LFU and DC had relative successes. The Latvian New Landowners and Small Landowners party (LNLSLP) became more stronger while LNFP fell out. National conservative lists gained strength. Russians and Germans gained six seats, Jews five but Poles two.

This was unusual Saeima as there were only two governments both lead by LFU. Hugo Celmiņš managed to lead the government for three years, a record only to be broken in the second period of independence. Kārlis Ulmanis took after Celmiņš government collapsed. The work of Saeima was severely disrupted by the radical Workers and Peasants fraction that openly supported the Soviet Union and condemned the independence. Calling for the establishment of the Worldwide Socialist Republic and singing the anthem of the Soviet Union in the parliament sessions, communist deputies made it difficult to make decisions. The Latvian legal system was struggling to find ways to stop them. In return far right wing nationalist members formed a National fraction.  The last legally elected president by Saeima was Alberts Kviesis in 1930.

The caricature depicting constant party struggle.The young woman representing Latvia wonders: "Who knows if they struggle for me or my dower?"

The caricature depicting the constant party struggle.
The young woman representing Latvia wonders: “Who knows if they struggle for me or my dower?”

The elections for Fourth Saeima took in the height of the Great Depression of 1931. Crisis took Latvia in 1929 along with the rest of the world. The economical situation worsened in 1931-1932. However, instead of greater gains the crisis only weakened the positions of LSDWP and their radical counterparts.  LFU also had losses. DC and LNLNSLP gained more votes. Many smaller crisis themed parties like Former depositors and the debtor’s party entered Saeima. The nationalist parties also suffered losses, the main force National Union fell out while Christian Democrats lost many mandates. Germans and Russians gained six seats, while Jews only three, and Poles two. The election turnout showed great dissatisfaction with all the leading parties and path to radicalization as former supporters on both left and right-wing official parties turn to support anti-governmental movements. This was the first and only Saeima with elected female deputy Berta Bīpiņa from DC list.

Instability returned to the governments. First government was formed by Marģers Skujenieks, an ex social democrat minor who shifted to progressive nationalism. On May 22 1933 he was replaced by LNLNSP leader Ādolfs Bļodnieks. The growing danger of right-wing radicalism became stronger as Germany was taken over by the Nazis. Latvian nation radical movement sympathetic to the Italian fascist regime “Thundercross” filled the society with anti-Semitic propaganda and national hate. They openly declared that they desire to overthrow the parliamentary system. Many other smaller radical Latvian movements as United Latvian National socialist Party and colonel Ozols movement also strived for this. Latvian Communist party on the other hand also took an active fight. In the end their elected deputies under the guise of “Leftist workers block” were removed from the parliament. The exposed Communists including famous writer Linards Laicēns moved to the Soviet Union where they perished in Stalin’s purges in 1937. Even more dangerous where the Baltic German Nazi movement.

In the end it turned out that destroyers of the Latvian democracy were the democrats themselves. Kārlis Ulmanis in 1918-1920 was the national hero. Leader of the Provisional Government he was one of the most influential politicians ever. However, the failure of becoming president and short-lived governments lead by him scorched his popularity. He was involved in many scandals and was the constant laughingstock of the Latvian journalists. The last elections showed a great danger for Ulmanis to not to be elected again in the next elections. Ulmanis was the example of what they call a “political animal” a man whose life is all about politics. Ulmanis had no wife and children and no other hobbies beside politics and financing. But his ambitions were still strong and seeing authoritarian regimes springing up all Eastern Europe, he saw no wrong by taking all the power himself.

So begun the plot that lead to coup in May 15 1934. Before that Ulmanis legally deposed Bļodnieks and become the Prime Minister. Using his administrative power and support within the army and Civil Guards (Aizsargi) he gathered enough power. To keep his actions in secret he derived the public attention to LFU proposed changes in Satversme that would greatly expand the presidential powers and weaken the parliament.  While parliament was caught up in heated arguments about this proposal for months, Ulmanis and his supporters without any causalities and heavy resistance deposed the parliament and forced president Kviesis to accept his power.

The May 15 1934 was bright and sunny day. Tired from the quarreling parliament the majority of the Latvian society welcomed or at least did not mind the coup. Kārlis Ulmanis stopped the work of Satversme and the parliament and formed his own government. He promised to cancel the state of emergency and rewrite the Satversme. None of these promises were ever made and Ulmanis was the leader of Latvia until 1940.

What could happen if the coup never took place? Latvian parliaments would probably work the same way with constant inner rivaling. The pressure from the radical movements of both the wings would become more dangerous. The reports from local newspapers on 1933 show rise of anti-Semitism and national hate that would grow larger if not sustained by Ulmanis regime. The parliamentary system likely would adapt to these threats and find legal ways how to stop them. The falling popularity of the old parties may open doors for new movements. But, how would democratically elected Saeima would respond to threats of occupation by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940? As Saeima was always caught up in quarrels it could lead to all kinds of things. The outcome would be even more complicated as Saeima was already entered by the Soviet agents that would stir up the process. Also if the national radical movements and Baltic German Nazis would enter Saeima the reaction to Soviet threats would be even more dramatic. However, it’s doubtful that Latvia would rather silently submit to the Soviet Union, like Kārlis Ulmanis government. But as in case of Czechoslovakia the democratic parliament was not enough to rescue the country.

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Latvia 2011 The Year of troubles

The year 2011 will certainly go down in history as one of the most intense years in history. The Japanese Disaster, Arab Spring, US debt crisis and Euro zone problems. But, also in Latvia the year 2011 was time of important decisions, political and national collisions and even newer economic problems. This post is about the main events in Latvia in 2011.

1. The Decree Nr.2

Since 2008, Latvia have been deeply affected by economic crisis. In late 2008, state on the brink of bankruptcy. A deal with International Monetary Fund was signed. Since then all previous governments have done a large effort to consolidate the state budget. The consolidation means drastic cuts in all state sectors, high taxes and lot of unpopular decisions.  And that surely means a large public dissatisfaction with the government and the Saeima (Parliament). Calls for dismissal of the parliament has been popular since 2006. The 9. Saeima was met with protest because of the so-called Positivism campaign that allowed the wining Peoples Party to fund the election campaign by surpassing the official election funding limits. In result the prime minister Aigars Kalvītis kept its seat for another 4 years. But, his second term was unsuccessful and sparked calls for dismissal of Saeima. The acting president Valdis Zatlers who only had such rights hesitated to take this step. In 2009. he was actually threatening to do that, but again hesitated.

But in May 28, he suddenly lost any hesitation and issued Decree Nr. 2. The Latvian constitution allows the President to call referendum to dismiss the parliament. If the people vote yes the parliament is dissolved if no – president must step down. But why Valdis Zatlers choose to dissolve parliament only nine months old when he was asked to do this many times earlier.

The official reason was the vote in the parliament that prohibited the state anti-corruption service to make search in deputies Ainārs Šlesers home. Šlesers is well-known political player and oligarch and he was accused for corruption schemes. However, since he was an elected deputy, he had to be handed over by deputy vote. And his party voted no along with quarter of deputies abstaining. So his handover failed.  The ballot was hidden. Those who were abstaining were members of Green Farmers Union and the Harmony Center. By this the parliament got involved in conflict with the juridical power. Valdis Zatlers saw this as a important breach by the parliament and called to dismiss it.

But that was just the official reason. First, Valdis Zatlers was on the finish of his presidential therm and seek re-election. But, he must be elected by the parliament. And he got pretty unclear promises from elected parties. And then alternative candidate appeared. His name was Andris Bērziņš and he was elected deputy of Green Farmers Union fraction. In past he was director of Unibank or Seb Bank and he a shadowy figure that appeared from nowhere. Before 28, May Valdis Zatlers was more and more aware that he may not be elected. So he may decided to dismiss the parliament to punish it for not supporting him and form his own party to continue his political career.

Another reason may have been his sympathy for the Russian party Harmony Center. There are speculations that before his decision he had conversation with the Saeima speaker Solvita Aboltiņa and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis  where he demanded to form new government with Harmony Center that was in opposition at that time.

The very first result of his decision was that he was punished by dismissed parliament. He was not elected and instead with 50 votes for and 48 against Andris Bērziņš was elected. He is the oldest president in Latvian history with 67 years. Numerous controversies were associated with him. First that he was a henchman of the oligarch Aivars Lembergs, second that he hacked money from EU Development funds and the last that he may have more children that he claims. When he left the parliament house as newly elected president he was met by angry crowd that supported Zatlers. Zatlers suddenly became so popular, because he fulfilled the Latvian people’s dream to punish the parliament they elected themselves. In his first months as president Andris Berzins has shown itself as conservative and neutral president. He said no to many presidential privileges, like private residence, escort with sirens and even presidential salary. The last should not be problem since he is the wealthiest senior citizen in Latvia.

 The election campaign

The referendum to dissolve the parliament was met with great support and 94% of voters voted for. So again in few months a new election campaign was issued. A reminder that the last parliament begun work only in November 2010. The main question was the next move by Valdis Zatlers. The ruling party Unity asked him to join them. But, instead Zatlers formed new party called Zatlers Reform Party. He wanted to make new wining party from scratch and get as many people as possible. The initial outcome was dubious,  all popular members of Latvian intellectual elite declined to join his party. So his party was formed from amateurs and ex members from other parties.

The main slogan of the election campaign was to finally crush the so-called oligarch parties. The three main known oligarchs Ainārs Šlesers, Andris Šķēle and Aivars Lembergs were the main targets. In one way Zatlers really succeeded to crush them. Andris Šķēle  dissolved his Peoples Party that had to pay million lats to state for breaking election funding limits. The same happened with Ainārs Šlesers, who took part in elections, but failed to surpass 5% barrier. He also put the end to his Latvian First Party/Latvian Way, that he had just renamed as Šlesers Reform Party to tackle Zatlers. In meanwhile Aivars Lembergs Green Farmers Union made it to new Saeima but with only 13 seats and remain in opposition.

Two main gainers from Zatlers Decree Nr. 2 were two opposite parties that each gained more prominence in the new elections. The pro-Russian party union The Harmony Center nearly won the elections of the 1o. Saeima, but failed to enter the parliament. By the years the Harmony Center has been the main supporter of Latvian Russian speaking population. However, also it has tried to gather enough Latvian support. Latvians who support Harmony Center are mostly nostalgic about Soviet times and has deep connection with Russian culture. Others, are moved by the social democratic ideology of the party. The Harmony Center was ready to win the emergency elections and finally to enter the government.

The opposite force against leftist Russian force financed by Moscow was the National Alliance, a force formed from two conservative parties For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK and All for Latvia!. The main ideology of this party was to defend Latvian rights in Latvia and preserve the Latvian language.  In November 2010, they were excluded from the government now because of the growing support for nationalist ideas they also hoped to enter the government.

The election outcome and troubled government formation

The emergency elections took place in 16. September. As many expected or feared the Harmony Center won by 26%. Zatlers Reform Party came second, Unity third and National Union fourth. The Green Farmers were the last to score above 5% barrier.

By the tradition the wining party should form the new government coalition. But the scored majority of the Harmony Center was not so great to make free moves so they had to relay on support from Latvian parties. And the movement to keep Harmony Center into opposition was stronger than ever. The leader of Harmony Center Nils Ušakovs made many concessions, first he recognized the occupation of Latvia at NATO meeting before the election night. The party that for years was denying that Latvia was occupied in 1940, by Soviet Union no came out with slogan: “There was an occupation, but there are no occupants!”, and asked to include this phrase in new governmental declaration. This phrase actually means that thousands of Soviet immigrants and occupation force members who still live in Latvia are not accountable for the actions of the Soviet Union and are legalized to live her further without worry. Such position made a lot of opposition against Harmony Center to taken in government.

 However, Valdis Zatlers threw a rock in to the pound, when he issued that Harmony Center must be taken in government. He made this decision in middle of the night, and angered people even more when he said this decision can only be changed with use of tanks. The analogy with 17, June 1940, when Soviet tanks rolled into Riga was bad for Zatlers and suddenly the peoples hero who dismissed the parliament became the national traitor in the eyes of many.

Two other contestants for the government the Unity and National Alliance allied against Zatlers, and forced him to make government without Harmony Center. In the end Valdis Dombrovskis kept his prime minister seat and the Latvian right-wing government was formed. Zatlers however got double shot in the feet in the very first day of the parliament session. He was again turned down by the parliament when his bid to take parliament speaker seat failed. Solvita Āboltiņa kept her parliament speaker seat. If that was not enough, six deputies from Zatlers party fraction left his party putting the coalition to a danger. Zatlers was speaking about traitors and worms, but Dombrovskis arranged deal with the six independent deputies to support the government.

The start of the national confrontation

The decision not to take Harmony Center into government started a large stir within the Russian population. The leader of the party Jānis Urbanovičs again threatened to use a “non – parliamentary activities” to enter the government. Russians hold a 28% of the population along with other minorities that mostly speak Russian. Why the Harmony Center was not taken into government? The very first answer that the Harmony Center have large disagreements with many Latvian parties and their ideology is against the interests of the Latvian state. They were against many economical policies, they wanted to cancel the deal with International Monetary Fund and wanted more cooperation with Russia. In national issues they wanted more rights for Russian language and they always questioned the historical issues of Latvia. If that was not enough they have signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin party United Russia and China Communist Party. Many sources state that the party is financed by the Kremlin.

 These events made Russian national radicals to organize a referendum for Russian language as the second official language.  The leader of this movement is the member of Russian neobolshevik  party Vladimir Linderman who was in past accused of terrorist activities and was deported from Russia. The idea of the referendum first came out in spring, when Linderman issued the petition for the referendum as the answer to National Alliance  petition signing to give lessons only in Latvian in schools. The National Alliance was intending to put the end to state funded Russian schools that still work in Latvia. That could be good move to end self-imposed school segregation in Latvia. While many Russians came to study in Latvian schools, many stays in Russian school and most probably finish them with bad Latvian language skills.  The petition failed as they failed to gather the required number of sing- ins for the referendum. Latvian population did not saw the issue important enough.

However, the Russian initiative was more successful since the question of Russian language as the official language was important for many nationalistic minded Russians. People who support this motion, are nostalgic for Soviet times, when Russian language was the main language and many were free from using Latvian. Many of them see Russia as their homeland. Others simply vote to protest against the existing state order that associate with Latvians and Europe. In so the referendum will take place in 18, February 2012. The prognosis of the outcome shows that the  motion will fail. To make such important change in the  constitution more than 60% of voters must vote yes. And this more than Harmony Center gathered in the elections. Russian speakers cannot gather more votes than the actually live in Latvia. And not all Russian speakers will vote for the motion. Meanwhile Latvian parties have asked all Latvians to take part in the referendum and vote no, to show Latvian unity.

The referendum issue sparks interesting question of what will be the future of the Harmony Center? At first Harmony Center was against the referendum, but actually it was secretly supporting it from the start. Then after staying in opposition the major of Riga and the leader of the party Nils Ušakovs singed for the referendum. To explained that he voted because of his conscience, but he was still in favor of one state language. Then other members of the Harmony Center also took part. In seems that Harmony Center took part in risky game to keep their voter sympathy. To enter the government they gave a lot of their demands and even recognized the occupation, but still remained in opposition. To rehabilitate themselves to Russian voters they again turned to national moves. Also it was important for Ušakovs to keep enough support to win in Riga Municipal elections, because the municipality has financial problems and their allies from Šlesers party have failed. But, by this move the Harmony Center has alienated the Latvian voters and made even better arguments for Latvian parties not include the Harmony Center into government.

Many liberals blame Latvian parties and Latvian nationalists for this situation. They say if the Harmony Center would be given a chance to take part into the parliament no referendum would not took place. Others blame National Alliance for their proposed referendum that provoked Russian radicals. But, in reality that is not the case. The petition would have happened even if Harmony Center would be in the government. That also would give good boost to gather necessary sing-ins. Also similar schemes happened in Ukraine and South Ossetia  where there no Latvian nationalists. The Linderman’s referendum is part of global politics of the Russian Federation to stir up Russians in the neighboring countries in the wake of the presidential elections.

More financial and economic troubles

At the end of the year the IMF mission in Latvia was finished. Latvia no more had to take more loans from IMF and organize the budget according to IMF demands. But, before it Latvia faced crisis in Air line and Bank sector. Latvian national Air Line Air Baltic nearly crushed, if had not be saved by the government and bank Latvijas Krājbanka went bankrupt because of forgery made by its owners.

Air Baltic was suffering from spending deficit already in 2011. At that time it was led by German businessman Bertold Flik  who got himself involved in corruption and conflicts with the government. After Minister of the economy Artis Kampars warned about possible bankruptcy of the airline, Fliks in fear from the anti-corruption service moved to Germany. Then later the government removed Fliks from office. After bank crush in Lithuania, whole Air Baltic was nationalized because Lithuanian Snoras bank had large share of Air Baltic stock actions.

Next big hit was in November, when the Lithuanian government nationalized the Snoras bank owned by Russian banker Vladimir Antonov. He and his associates was accused of looting the bank resources. The Snoras bank was in control of Latvian based Latvijas Krājbanka. Few days after the events in Lithuania the Latvian Financial Capital Trade commission came to conclusion that also  about 100 millions of Lats had been looted from Latvijas Krājbanka also. So also the Latvijas Krājbanka went bankrupt. Many thousand people had problems with their bank accounts and pensions. In rural areas where there was only one Latvijas Krājbanka ATM problems were severe.

In December, a rumors on social circles, Twitter, Draugiem Lv, spread out that also Swedish Swedbank has problems. That lead to bank customer panic and in one night more than 20 million of Lats were taken out by panicked customers. Soon it was clear that the rumors were spread out in purpose. No actual Swedbank problems were known and this was an intended scheme to make loss for Swedbank and Latvian economy. The Latvian security police has stated that the perpetrators may come from foreign country.

These were the main political and economical events in Latvia in 2011. It was the time of new political crisis, ethnic division and financial problems.  The next year will no be no less intense. As the astrologers say the 2011 and 2012 is the time of increased solar activity so its time of worldwide changes. Plus 2012. will be the year of the dragoon. Last time when I wrote report about Latvia in 2010, I expressed hope that this year would be much peaceful and wiser than the last. It however turned that the year 2011 was the year of troubles for whole the world. Next year will be the year of changes and I wish the Latvian people to be strong enough to survive these changes.

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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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