Coalition talks: who is the odd man out?
If there is one recurring theme in the Latvian politics, it is this: whatever your predictions are, they will be wrong.
After the 10th Saeima elections, there was a general feeling of relief – The Economist even suggested that "Latvian politics, it seems, is boring again." Of course, it has been anything but.
After the 11th Saeima elections on 17 September, certain Latvian bloggers argued that the pro-Russian (and pro-Kremlin) Saskanas Centrs (SC) has not really won the elections – it just got more votes than anyone else. Look, they would argue, the three pro-Western parties Vienotiba, Zatlera Reformu partija (ZRP) and VL-TB/LNNK clearly have a majority, so the next government is so obvious: they just join forces and finally lead Latvia to a brighter future.
One week later, the three (supposedly) pro-Western parties have not formed any coalition to speak of. Instead, there has been talk that ZRP and Vienotiba, previously seen like two peas in a pod, may not form any coalition at all; instead, ZRP could join forces with SC alone.
Goat, wolf and cabbage
One of the reasons why the coalition talks have been so complicated is the fact that three of the five Saeima parties have clearly stated that they will not form a coalition with another party.
ZRP, famous for its anti-oligarch stand, has always maintained that it will not form a government with Zalo un zemnieku savieniba (ZZS). It is currently the only party in Saeima that has a very clear patron-oligarch – Mr Aivars Lembergs, the major of Ventspils – and, sure enough, it has actively lobbied for his interests.
VL-TB/LNNK, being the keen nationalists that they are, has sworn not to work with their enemies from SC. VL-TB/LNNK sees SC as a direct continuation of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
SC is eager to return the favour, accusing VL-TB/LNNK of fascistic tendencies.
As ZZS has just 13 seats in Saeima and ZRP has 22, it is almost certain that any possible government coalition will include ZRP, leaving out ZZS. This, then, leaves two mutually exclusive scenarios: a government coalition with either SC or VL-TB/LNNK.
Note that this does not necessarily include Vienotiba: ZRP and SC have enough seats to form a slight majority, and, indeed, ZRP has hinted that this might as well be the case – much to Vienotiba's dismay.
As to VL-TB/LNNK, it has done little to encourage its possible coalition partners to choose it instead of SC. Still more of a lose collection of nationalistic activists rather than a serious political party with experienced politicians, it has already returned to its old attention-grabbing rhetoric – with some members, for example, claiming that SC voters are illegal colonists and their votes should be ignored. It is not hard to see why the other possible government parties are not too eager to put such people in charge of any ministry.
Goodbye for oligarchs?
Then there is the whole issue about "ousting the oligarchs from power." Presumably, since ZZS is the only openly pro-oligarch party to make it to the 11th Saeima – and, as they are treated like outcasts, in theory this means that the goal indeed has been reached.
In practice, however, it is still too early to celebrate. SC, despite its self-proclaimed social democratic (or even socialist) values, has been very keen to vote in support of oligarchs throughout the 10th Saeima. Moreover, it does not even deny its close ties with Kremlin – indeed, it has signed a co-operation agreement with United Russia, the political party of messrs Putin and Medvedev – and few would argue that oligarchs do not enjoy notable influence in the Russian politics. This, then, leads to a very obvious question – could SC bring some Russian-style oligarch rule to Latvia?
Finally, there is the question as to who will be the next Prime Minister, as he (a female candidate is extremely unlikely) would be the one to form the government. This is where the President of Latvia Andris Berzins comes in – he has to name the next PM, and then Saeima has to vote to put him and his government into power.
President Berzins himself has no political allegiance, although he did get elected in the 10th Saeima on ZZS ticket. Obviously, there is little point in naming a ZZS candidate, and President Berzins has stated that he would prefer a PM with previous government experience. That kind of narrows it down – Vienotiba is the only one of the possible coalition partners with such experience.
So what are the possible implications from this remarkable mess?
First and foremost, the most important difference between the 10th and 11th Saeima is that no political party is irreplaceable. If SC refuses to form a government, Vienotiba and ZRP could turn to VL-TB/LNNK. If ZRP really wants to, it can even form a government just with SC – and so can Vienotiba, although, given its previous experience with two-party coalition with ZZS, it is highly unlikely to attempt that. This means that no party would have such unique bargaining power as ZZS enjoyed in the 10th Saeima.
Second, in any government, there would be a great amount of people with no previous government experience. It is hard to say whether this is a good or a bad thing. On one hand, obviously this would not be the best possible time to train new ministers. On the other hand, new ministers could bring the much-needed reforms much faster, simply because they are not yet so entrenched in the old ways.
Of course, Latvian politics being what it is, surprises are bound to follow. But, keeping the numerous caveats in mind, there is some space for closely watched optimism – when all is said and done, Latvia could indeed end up with a more stable, less corrupt government, which would be another step towards becoming your average boring European country.