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New Unity’s New Partners: Coalition Building After Latvia’s 2022 Elections – Analysis

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By Una Bergmane*

(FPRI) — On Oct. 1, Latvia elected its 14th parliament since 1922. The winner of the elections is the center-right New Unity (Jaunā Vienotība), the party of the current Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš and current Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs. This means that Latvian foreign policy will remain deeply pro-European and transatlantic. Latvia will continue to be a strong critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and a strong supporter of Ukraine.  

In terms of domestic politics, things look less straightforward and more challenging; the new ruling coalition might turn out to be either unable or simply unwilling to pass substantial long-needed reforms, for example, the same-sex civil union law that the Constitutional Court requested from legislators in a recent ruling. 

In the Latvian system, after parliamentary elections, the president of the country invites a potential candidate of their choice to form the government. Once it is done, the new cabinet has to be approved by the parliament. Kariņš has started the negotiation process, but his task will be not an easy one. His own party, New Unity, obtained 18.97% of votes and 26 out of 100 seats in the Latvian Saeima. To have an efficient government he needs to secure the support of at least 51 legislators, yet his options are rather limited. 

Latvian election results have been shaped by the two major events of the previous four years: the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s war against Ukraine has had double effects on Latvian politics. Rather unexpectedly, war has not encased ethnic Latvian support for the radical right, but rather consolidated the position of the center-right New Unity. Meanwhile, Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority has abandoned its long-time favorite party, Harmony (Saskaņa), and dispersed its support among various political forces, including the radical For Stability (Stabilitātei!), which obtained 6,80% of votes and 11 seats

The frustration with COVID restrictions and the economic hardships caused by both the pandemic and recent inflation has been instrumentalized by former oligarchs who — even if considerably weakened — have made a comeback in Latvian politics. Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība) The party of Aivars Lembergs (mayor of Ventspils, sentenced to five years in prison for corruption by a first instance court in 2021) has obtained 12.44% and 16 seats, while Latvia First (Latvija Primajā vietā), the party of Ainārs Šlesers (a former oligarch pushed out of Latvian politics in the 2011 snap elections), earned 6,24% and nine seats.

The new parliament includes two more newcomers: 1) the United List (Apvienotais Saraksts) a gray horse in Latvian politics, which, as its name suggests, consists of several smaller political parties united in one electoral list, has scored 11.01% and obtained 15 seats, 2) the Progressives (Progresīvie) the first modern, green, left-wing party to enter Latvian parliament since 1991 with 6.16% and 10 seats

The following article will discuss the dynamics behind these results and the possible options for the Kariņš government. 

The oligarchs, the Latvian countryside, and Latvia’s Russian speakers

As discussed before in the columns of the Baltic Bulletin Latvian politics in the 1990s and early 2000s were shaped by three men — Aivars Lembergs, Ainārs Šlesers, and Andris Šķēle — who managed to gain considerable political influence in the country and to use it for the profit of their own business interests. While Šķēle has now distanced himself from active politics, Aivars Lembergs has been the mayor of the port city of Ventspils since 1988, despite being sentenced by the Latvian judicial system and sanctioned by the US. His political force, Union of Greens and Farmers, has no clear ideology but presents itself as an advocate for countryside Latvians and lobbies for the interests of farmers. In 2014, Lembergs compared the eventual presence of NATO forces in Latvia to Soviet occupation

The success of the Union of Greens and Farmers is mostly driven by their personal networks among big farm owners, as well as their on-the-ground presence in small local municipal councils. In other words, the Greens and Farmers mainly attract voters not because of Lembergs’ anti-Western rhetoric, but because of their capacity to project an image of being “close to the countryside people.” 

The successes of the United List (11.01% and 15 seats) are rooted in the same “countryside people versus Riga elites” rhetoric. United in just four months by the efforts of businessperson Uldis Pīlēns, it consists of three smaller parties that all have strong on-the-ground connections outside of Riga: The Liepāja Party (Liepājas Partija) is the regional party of Latvia’s third-largest city, Liepāja (pop. approx. 67,000); Latvia’s Green Party (Latvijas Zaļā Partija) is not a green party in the traditional Western European sense but a long-term ally of Aivars Lembergs, which now claims to have broken away from the oligarch; finally, the Regional Alliance (Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība), which, as its name indicates, is the union of other much smaller regional parties and political groups. Overall, the United List is a loose political formation with an unclear ideological standing that might well collapse in the coming months or years. However, it will most definitely play a key role in the formation of the new government. Its limited (though not non-existent) links with oligarchs and its 15 seats in the Saeima makes it an acceptable and a strategic partner in the eyes of New Unity.

The other returning oligarch, Ainārs Šlesers — former minister of economy (1998-199) and minister of transport (2006-2009) — has tried to position himself as a Christian voice in Latvian politics. Yet, his promises to defend Christian values have been accompanied by homophobic rhetoric and admiration for Putin’s Russia. After a defeat in the 2011 elections, Šlesers disappeared from Latvian politics, but made a comeback during the COVID pandemic capitalizing on anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. While the name of his party — Latvia First (Latvija Pirmajā Vietā) — has been clearly inspired by recent developments in American politics, Russian opposition journalist Dimitry Muratov has accused Šlesers of being funded by Vladimir Putin. Opinion polls conducted by polling agency Factum shows that Latvia First has been more popular among Russian-speakers than ethnic Latvians. Indeed, one of the most important shifts in these elections has been the defeat of Harmony (Saskaņa), which has been the main Russian speaker’s party in Latvia since 2010, and the drift of its former supporters towards other parties. 

Several long-term factors have contributed to the demise of Harmony as a political force. The party ran the Riga City Council from 2010 to 2019, and was plagued by endless corruption scandals. Harmony’s long-time leader and former Mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs has left national politics for a seat in the European Parliament. The number of votes the party receives in parliamentary elections has been gradually decreasing over the years: 259,930 in 2011209,887 in 2014, and 167,117 in 2018. The sharp drop to 43,933 in 2022 was to a very large extent due to dynamics surrounding the Russian war against Ukraine. 

It appears that, for some of Harmony’s voters, the party’s strong stance against Putin’s aggression was not acceptable, and these voters moved towards supporting a new radical party — For Stability. For Stability was established in January 2021 by four former members of Harmony. While claiming to be Latvia’s patriots, members of the party have urged their supporters to question the politics of the “current regime” in Latvia and to “change it.” The party has promised to reconsider Latvian membership in the EU, while its leader, Aleksejs Rosļikovs, has promised “to seek revenge” and “persecute” those who — according to him — are to blame for the “COVID genocide” and the recent dismantlement of the Soviet-era monument in Riga. 

This inflammatory rhetoric and active use of social media platforms such as Tik Tok allowed For Stability to secure 62,168 votes — 37% of Harmony’s 167,117 in 2018. The third Russian-speakers’ party — Latvia’s Russian Union (Latvijas Krievu savienība) — obtained 33,203 votes, which is 6,189 more than in 2018.

Harmony was able to maintain only 43,933 supporters, meaning approximately 55,000 voters who supported the party in 2018 have either fallen off the voter lists or cast their ballots for forces other than Harmony or For Stability. 

Factum opinion polls show that before the election, Russian-speakers who planned to vote for parties other than those traditionally perceived as Russian-speakers’ parties eyed not only Šlesers party, but also another marginal anti-vaccine political formation. The exception was the age group 18-29 whose first choice seemed to be the left-wing green party Progressives. However, another opinion poll carried out by the research center SKDS shows that people from low-income and Russian-speaking households tended to consider Aivars Lembergs fit for the office of prime minister, indicating that some of Harmony supporters might have drifted towards Greens and Farmers.  

The victory of the New Unity and the future government 

As discussed earlier in the columns of Baltic Bulletin, New Unity has been one of the key forces in Latvian politics since 2010. 

In 2018, today’s winners faced a crushing defeat in parliamentary elections, obtaining only eight seats in the parliament. Yet, after a series of failed attempts by other parties to form a government, Krišjānis Kariņš succeeded in negotiating a broad coalition of social liberals, conservatives, the radical right, populists, and his own New Unity. With slight changes (populists were excluded from the government in June 2021), this uncommon alliance managed to get the country through the COVID-19 pandemic and deliver substantial support for Ukraine. The popularity of New Unity’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičš, who has served in this government position since 2011, as well as Kariņš own approval ratings, were key assets for the party in these elections. 

National conservative, but not illiberal, New Unity has become the pillar of Latvian politics attempting to bridge the differences between other political forces. At the same time, both Kariņš and his party have been criticized for too often playing the role of mediator instead of assuming strong leadership over unruly coalition partners.

So far Kariņš has made it clear that there would be no place in his government for For Stability and the two oligarch parties. This leaves him with three options: the United List, the National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība), and the Progressives. The task is made especially difficult due to the opposing ideologies of the National Alliance and Progressives. 

The National Alliance is the radical right party that has been a member of governing coalitions since 2011. While the presence of the National Alliance in the government has shifted Latvian political rhetoric towards the right, the party has lost its anti-establishment appeal and its voter base has slightly decreased since 2014 (151,568 votes or 16.61 %); in 2018 it obtained 92,963 votes (11.02%), and in 2022 — 84,939 (9.29%). As the numbers show, neither Russia’s war in Ukraine nor the demise of the National Alliance’s main right-wing rival Conservative party (Konservatīvie — which did not reach the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament in 2022) has increased the support for the National Alliance. 

The Progressives are a green social democratic party founded in 2017. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, the party obtained 22,078 votes or 2,61%. In the 2020 Riga municipal elections, the Progressives formed an alliance with liberal Development/For! (Attīstībai/Par!), earning 18 out of 60 seats in the city council. Now, in the 2022 parliamentary elections, the Progressives obtained 56,327 votes or 6.16 % and 10 seats in the Saeima. The increase in voter support can be explained by their work in the Riga City Council, their clean track record (the party to this day has not faced any corruption scandals), and the decrease in popularity of their main ally and rival liberal Development/For!.

While in most other European countries a government coalition between social democrats and the radical right would be uncommon, Latvia is used to broad coalitions that include parties from across the political spectrum. President Egils Levits has hinted that he would prefer broad cooperation of four parties (New Unity, United List, National Alliance, and Progressives) that would secure 64 votes in the parliament. Both Kariņš and his party have also expressed a strong preference for this option. However, the United List and National Alliance have so far declared themselves to be unwilling to form a coalition with a left-wing party such as the Progressives, while the Progressives themselves are willing to partake in the new government.

From the point of view of the future prime minister, the choice between a three- and four-party government is not only one of smaller or larger support in the parliament, but also speaks to the question of limiting one coalition partner from dictating its political preferences to the others. Historically, Unity’s prime ministers have been wary of not letting the Nation Alliance highjack government agenda, and the balancing act could be easier in a four-party coalition. At the same time while New Unity, unlike the Progressives, is fiscally a conservative party and might have a hard time cooperating with social democrats, it has become increasingly socially liberal over the years and from this perspective has much more in common with the Progressives than with the National Alliance or United List. Both New Unity and the Progressives also have a strong anti-corruption stance and are deeply Western oriented.

As of publication, coalition negotiations have entered the phase of seeing who will blink first. For Kariņš, it is impossible to form a government without the National Alliance and United List duo. At the same time the United List and the nationalists can’t hope to form a coalition without Unity unless they decide to work with the oligarchs. While the United List might be open to such a move, the National Alliance would alienate a large part of its voting base if it chose to cooperate with Šlesers. Kariņš capacity to stand his ground during these negotiations will determine not only the number of parties involved in the new government, but also his future ability to assert leadership in his government — whichever parties are ultimately part of the coalition.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

*About the author: Una Bergmane is a Baltic Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI (http://www.fpri.org/) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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