Friday, July 22, 2011

Formative referendum on July 23, 2011 (updated)

My usual weekend calm was interrupted by the Norwegian tragedy and flying down South to the shores of Bosphorus. Since my arrival to Turkey the Latvian Central Election commission has already sealed the official results and announced that the emergency elections would take place in September 17, 2011.

The July 23, 2011 referendum in Latvia finished the procedure of dissolution of the parliament started by the former president Valdis Zatlers with his ominous May 28 Decree No. 2. The legal pretext for dissolution of the parliament served the decision of HC party together with oligarchic Union of Greens and Farmers not to lift parliamentary immunity of an another oligarch and MP Ainars Slesers when the Corruption Prevention Bureau asked with the Riga District Court permission to search premises of ominous politician. Reasons for sacking the parliament since Latvia joined the EU have been ample however. Cynical misuse of power reached the equinox, however, in the October 2006 parliamentary elections. Those elections were plagued by misuse of illegal financing and the Supreme Court of Latvia in its November 3, 2006 verdict was slightly shy from proclaiming the 2006 elections null and void. Thus, the heavy weight of oligarchic parties misusing funds and poisoning the Latvian political culture fostered the embedded culture of alienation which has estranged Latvian voters from democratic institutions of governance. Thus, the July 23, 2011 referendum results with 44% of eligible voter’s participation rate and 95% agreeing to dissolve the parliament was not unexpected.
The sheer number who voted YEA was surprising, however, because 65% of them voted for the incumbent parliament less than a year ago in parliamentary elections. Latvian political commentators have been analyzing reasons behind such distrust of citizen’s vis-à-vis their own republic, and also why the smallest number of participants in plebiscitary voting came from Riga and Latgale electoral districts. The reasons for distrust lead us back to the early 1990’s when Latvia together with other Baltic republics regained its independence. Estonia and Lithuania had a new constitutional caucus, election law and subsequent upgrading of laws concerning public finance and governance issues. Latvian legislators rolled over the constitution of 1922 and has remained the only EU member state which neither has the mandatory tax and property declarations system nor it funds political parties with Malta from the state budget. Reasons for voters in Riga and Latgale being relatively inactive (38 and 34 % participation respectively) are twofold. First, the stagnated political culture has been embedded due to the existing oligarchic parties which have openly discouraged active civic participation during referendums last five years. Second, the majority of Riga and Latgale electoral district voters voted for the mainly russophone Harmony Center (HC) party. The latter governs Riga and most of Latgale municipalities but during the last twenty years they have metamorphosed from ethnic into social democratic party and have sat in opposition all those years.
The referendum set a unique precedent while empowering the somewhat dormant Latvian civil society. The amendment in the election law stipulates that political parties will be funded from the state budget as of January 1, 2012, and many other legal innovations since the May 28, 2011 presidential decree No. 2 have strengthened the rule of law in Latvia. The only concern is the fact that in terms of party political development Latvia has returned to square one or at the point where it started in the early 1990’s. The Latvian party political system was poisoned by the ethnically determined division in right wing Latvian and left wing Russian speaking political parties. Since last elections the trend is for parties to determine its policies on social and economic issues. Thus, while the consolidation of political parties took place the political unions were not so much based on pragmatic ideologically similar platform. Thus, we may witness the plethora of new political parties being formed and some older political parties trying to merge now on the identical ideological foundations.
Such process is welcome but just two months prior emergency elections it is hard to predict how qualitative the newly formed parties will be and how well they will be able to expose the ‘’hoppers’’ from the formerly oligarchic parties. Thus, former president Zatlers Reform Party has announced itself as liberal force and thus will have to compete with catch all mechanisms for the same voter as the Unity political bloc which should merge its three constitutive parts into the right to the center political party on August 6. It is positive that there are now distinct liberal, conservative and centrist parties, but what Latvian body politics is really missing is the social democratic or progressive political force. Thus, this open niche is filled by the HC party which uses populist slogans but has not established efficient relations with the trade unions.
Therefore, while stable and leading position of HC in polls continues probably the 35-40% of undecided or swing voters will determine the election outcome. Also, I must remind here that HC party has been leadind the polls both BY Latvıjas Fakti and SKDS firms for the last three years, but they became second during last year's parliamentary elections. The latest polls showed significant decrease of support from the HS, Unity, Nationalist Bloc and Union of Greens and Farmers. The Zatlers Reform Party (ZRP) has very good starting positions but the hard labor of creating party base and little monies for the campaign will probably determine their abılıties to hold a successful campaign.


Initially the ethnically defined National bloc and HC are gaining strength from the dissolution of the parliament. Successful outcome of September 17 elections will be determined by the ability of the successful political parties to create jobs, decrease unemployment and embed the rule of law however. Neither of ethnically defined parties have been able to seriously compete on those issues so far. Therefore, the major contenders for the formation of government coalition will be the governing Unity, ZRP and HC parties, while National Bloc, Union of Greens and Farmers and maybe First and Latvian Way party union would have to compete among themselves for passing the required 5% threshold for entering into the parliament.

p.s. My previous statements from the interview in ERR were actually uttered while thinking that ceteris paribus nothing will change prior elections, but since May 28, 2011 Latvia has become ''richer'' with 3 new parties, and 2 former electoral unions merging into 2 distinct parties

p.p.s. Here are my latest articles for those reading in Latvian, and Ukrainian