Latvia Parliamentary Elections Deliver Pro-Russia, Anti-Establishment Parties Victory
Latvian voters have rejected the incumbent governing three-party center-right coalition, sending pro-Russian and anti-establishment parties to Riga with over a combined half of the legislature’s 100 seats in the parliamentary election held on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018. Negotiations are now underway between the parties to form a government, although it remains to be seen whether mainstream parties can preserve their leadership in an inevitable coalition government.
Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic state of Latvia — like its fellow Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania, — has been governed by a succession of governments wary of the influence of neighboring Russia. The entry into the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004 definitively marked a departure from the region’s prior Soviet-era domination. Baltic concern over Russian designs for the region (and more generally, Eastern Europe) intensified after Moscow’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014 and United States President Donald Trump’s statements calling NATO obsolete. The trio of Baltic leaders called for a more concrete NATO military commitment to the Baltics and improvements in speed and effectiveness of NATO rapid-response forces to deter any Russian attempt at military action.
An additional dimension to the security worries of the Baltics is the presence of a sizable Russia-speaking ethnic Russian minority — over a quarter of residents in Latvia and Estonia are ethnically Russian — and Moscow’s increasing penchant for utilizing information warfare, manipulating mass media, and citing concern for Russian minorities to interfere in neighboring states.
Nowhere has this concern been as acute as Latvia, where the political scene has been tainted this year by allegations of shady ties with Russia against the central bank governor, the collapse of Latvia’s third-largest bank, and Russian military displays in the Baltic Sea. In the last elections for the unicameral 100-seat Latvian parliament — the Saeima — held in 2014, the mainstream center-right party Unity (23 seats) was able to form a governing coalition with the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS, 21 seats) and the conservative National Alliance (NA, 17 seats) to head off the Social Democratic Party “Harmony” (SDPS), a center-left party that enjoys support from Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority that came first in the 2014 polls with 24 seats. Laimdota Straujuma (Unity) was re-elected as Prime Minister of Latvia; upon her resignation in December 2015, Maris Kucinskis (ZZS) became prime minister in February 2016.
However, Sunday’s election for the 13th Saeima handed a clear defeat for the Kucinskis-led incumbent three-party center-right coalition. Pro-Russian SDPS, polling at nearly 20% of the vote, secured 23 seats while the right-wing Eurosceptic anti-establishment populist party Who Owns the State? (KPV LV) captured over 14% of the vote and 16 seats. Anti-corruption party New Conservative Party (JKP) came in third with over 13% of the vote and also 16 seats, thus giving 55 seats in all to non-government parties and making it a numerical impossibility to form a coalition government without one of these parties’ support.
The remaining seats in the Saeima were distributed to the Development/For! bloc (AP!, with 12% of the vote and 13 seats), NA (11% and 13 seats), ZZS (10% and 11 seats), and New Unity (6.7% and 8 seats). Other parties failed to enter the Saeima after polling below the 5% threshold for a seat in the parliament.
The withering away of the mainstream center-right parties in favor of conservative and populist upstarts (the KPV LV and JKP had not entered the Saeima prior to this election) and the continued solid block of support for Russia-friendly SDPS (albeit with a slight decline from 2014) will undoubtedly complicate the delicate process of negotiating for a workable coalition to form the next government of Latvia. While the numbers do exist for an agreement between the other parties to shut out the SDPS from government via a four- or even five-way coalition, the workability and longevity of such arrangements are highly doubtful at best.
The ultimate composition of the new government — not expected for another few months of intense coalition negotiations — is poised to have significant ramifications for Riga’s relations with Moscow, Latvia’s place in the EU, and future NATO strategy in the region. The fractured nature of the newly-elected Saejima may also inherently weaken the political foundation of any new government and drive Latvian voters increasingly away from the mainstream center to resolve the pressing issues of corruption and Russian interference in national and regional affairs.