Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One "balagāns" is over, the next one starts

And so the big balagāns (slighty tawdry carnival) of the extraordinary Saeima elections is over and the outcome is much as could be expected. The only thing that did not happen is that Harmony Center (SC) didn't get the big gain in seats that some pollsters predicted, and that would have allowed it to make a coalition wih the severely depleted Green and Farmers' Union (ZZS) of the “oligarch” Aivars Lembergs. The SC, which has been called both “ pro-Russian” and “social democratic”, gained only two seats for a total of 31. The ZZS was cut down to 13 seats in the Saeima, but with the SC failing to make the gains that some had predicted for it, there is no way that the two of them together can make the populist, corruption-tolerant coalition that would have been possible if the list led by Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs had gained at least 38 seats (for a bare majority together with ZZS).
What is possible now is a number of unstable coalitions. One is to put together 51 seats with prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis' Unity (V) and SC, which would need a good reason for excluding the Zatlers' Reform Party (ZRP). It would also put the strongest member, SC, in a technically dominant role against the more politically experienced, but “defeated” V. A strong coalition in terms of numbers would put the top three winners together and gather 73 seats, making it possible to pass almost any “reforms”, including changes to the constitution (Satversme).
In such a coalition, the two centrist-liberal parties with 42 votes among them would be dominant, though perhaps as a two-headed alpha dog. If one “discounts” the SC, then the ZRP has good reason to consider itself the real “winner” of the election, having come from nothing to 22 seats in the Saeima, ahead of V with its depleted 20 seats. Vienotība, itself an amalgam of three parties, can still consider itself most experienced at government (which ZRP is not), and besides, ZRP is just an accidental clone of itself, isn't it? Seeing things that way, the real winner is the center-liberal block, the unintentional seeming twins V and ZRP, with 42 votes, just a few short of a majority.
That is where the Nationalist Alliance (NA) with is long title of All for Latvia!-For Fatherland & Freedom/Latvian National Independence Movement could fit very nicely to make a government backed by 56 votes in the Saeima. There is just one problem – the NA knows they are the keystone that holds together the edifice of a “non-Russian” and nominally non-leftist (the NA actually supports protectionism and state ownership, but nevermind...). This gives the nationalists undue leverage, which would be problematic enough if the NA could keep some of its loose cannon from rolling around the deck and firing at the wrong time.
For a while it looked like one of the cannon, a young lawyer named Jānis Iesalnieks, had been lashed down after stating in social media that multiculturalism in Norway was really to blame for the bombing and massacre staged in July by Anders Breivik. Iesalnieks agreed not to run for the Saeima on the NA ticket, something he and All for Latvia (VL) had intended. But just after the election, Iesalnieks resurfaced and engaged SC's candidate for prime minister, Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs, in a duel on Twitter, saying that most of the people who voted for SC (as Latvian citizens) were really an illegitimate colonial population. Ušakovs wrote to VL's leader Raivis Dzintars, who was elected to the new Saeima, demanding an explanation. Dzintars responded that Iesalnieks arguments, based on the Geneva Convention articles about settlers in occupied territories were sound, but that VL and the NA did not support acrimony between the Latvians and Russians on an everyday level. This was a position that could effectively exclude the NA from any coalition with V and the ZRP, especially as the latter has said one of its purposes was to bridge the ethnic rift in Latvian society.
While the NA is unyielding in its hard-line position, the SC has apparently show readiness to retreat from its contrarian, populist or as some politely called it – social democratic policies. In order to join a possible grand coalition, the SC has indicated it will go along with a 2012 budget deficit that will get Latvia into the eurozone under the Maastricht criteria in 2014. It also has, by implication, backed off from suggesting that it wants to extend repayment (by refinancing on the market) of Latvia's loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other lenders. Ušakovs also made a low-key concession over the weekend, telling a conference that he considered Latvia to have been an occupied country during the Soviet era, but that no one today should be considered an occupier (Latvians use the term okupants or “occupant” – the biggest single addressee for junk mail in the US until /not-so/ sophisticated computer mailing systems personalized each letter). If you ask me, you will see cows dancing ballet on their hind legs by the Freedom Monument in Riga before Nils Ušakovs statement on “occupation” gets the NA to join any government with the SC in it. The reason for this was more likely to make a gesture toward the ZRP and V, who are also sensitive to anyone treating 50 years of totalitarian rule as some kind of mistake in international affairs or an “annexation” agreed to by a government in 1940 terrified by thousands of Soviet tanks and soldiers at (and to a great deal, within) its borders.
Having said that, the quick retreat from apparent “principles” (pasted to the backs of half of the busses in Riga) does not bode well for the SC as a reliable partner to the ZRP and V. Shapeshifters never are. As one former Riga hand said recently over a beer while visiting town, it's all about getting into power for the SC, never about any principles. That makes it a very much “Latvian” and old-style party, much like the sordidly defeated ZZS.
Oh yes – Vienotība and the ZRP are already kicking each other under the table while still trying to smile, because ZRP apparently went to a meeting with the SC without taking its slightly smaller twin along. And already during election eve, a carrot-topped iron lady from V was ranting that Zatlers was a liar because he had extended feelers to the SC even as the ballot boxes were being being sealed and taken away to be counted and exit polls were hitting the newswires showing who would be boss.
A merry few weeks are ahead for all. Book your Ryanair seats now for the opening of parliament (air Baltic may well have gone to the dogs by then, the government may just dump it on the mysterious minority shareholders rather than put up to LVL 60 million, maybe more, into a rathole in the skies).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Latvia Heading for a populruppted or corruplistic government?

The Latvian affiliate of the German-based market research and polling company GfK has published a poll indicating that the Harmony Center (Saskaņas centrs/SC) will get 41 seats in the extraordinary Saeima elections to be held in less than a week. In the last elections to the 10th Saeim,, GfK accurately predicted that SC would get 29 seats, which gives considerable credibility to their latest forecast.
The poll also sees the Green and Farmers Union (Zaļu un zemnieku savienība/ZZS) getting 13 seats down from 22, Unity (Vienotiba/V) would get 21 seats (down from 33), Zatlers' Reform Party (ZRP) would get 18 seats (as a new party, no prior presence), and the nationalist National Alliance (Visu Latvija-Tēvzeme un Brīviba-LNNK /NA) -seven seats.
The only combination that “works” from these forecast results is a coalition of SC and ZZS, easily getting 53 votes (or more, if support for the ZZS is stronger than anticipated). The resulting government will be populist – with the SC advocating more spending for pensions and social programs (even at the risk of expanding the budget deficit) and “corruption-tolerant” with the ZZS still holding out hopes that its backer and “eminence grise”, Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs, who face criminal charges for economic crimes, will someday be prime minister. Hence the idea that the government will be populruppted or corruplistic, combining the words populist and corrupted.
The SC and Lembergs have both entertained the idea of renegotiating Latvia's deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the vain hope of extending Latvia's very favorable credit terms (never mind that the IMF has not given any new loans at the same low rates) rather than re-financing the loans and going back to the market. Even if it worked, it would mean continued austerity, something at odds with the SC's attempts to be social-democratic.
The ZZS, a party ready to go in bed with almost anyone in order to stay in government, will continue to shield state-capture and corruption, though perhaps with less vigor since the SC will want to keep a relatively “clean” image. Indeed, one of the reasons people will probably vote for this party and forget the battles over “acknowledging the occupation” is that the SC has not, so far, been involved in any major corruption scandals (probably because it has been kept away from the trough by the bigger pigs).
Interestingly, Latvia will probably be praised for getting a government with its first ethnic Russian PM, Nils Ušakovs, a kind of Latvian version of Arnold Schwartzenegger – a politician of national scale who spoke the official language with a slight accent. There will also be well-grounded fears that an EU member state has been drawn further into Russia's sphere of influence, although the same could have been said about Germany and its pro-Russian policies some years back, for instance, regarding the Nordstream gas pipeline.
So, if the GfK poll and forecast are right, Latvia is heading for a change, putting the present government party in opposition, a different party and possibly an ethnic Russian prime minister in charge, and, after some years of slight progress in breaking away from corruption and free-spending, pedal-to-the metal government, a partial back-to-the future with populist spending and tolerance of, to put it mildly, politico-economic hanky-panky.