Although Latvian voters expressed a clear preference for free-market and pro-Western parties at the recent parliamentary elections, the country has ended up with a minority government dependent on a heterogeneous combination of political groups. The October 3 elections (see the Monitor, October 6, 9) had given the conservative People’s Party twenty-four seats, the right-of-center Latvia’s Way twenty-one seats, and the conservative Fatherland and Freedom seventeen seats, amounting to a sixty-two-seat strong majority in the 100-seat parliament. On the minority side the “centrist” New Party won eight seats, the left-of-center Social Democratic Alliance fourteen seats, and the leftist People’s Harmony Party–whose electorate is mainly Russian–sixteen seats.
Yet the winning parties’ leaders, mainly those of Latvia’s Way, passed up the opportunity to form a stable parliamentary majority and a durable government of like-minded political forces. The nominee of Latvia’s Way for prime minister, Vilis Kristopans, formed last week a minority government which excludes the election winner, the People’s Party. The latter has also been totally excluded from the distribution of influential parliamentary posts (committee chairmanships and presidium seats; see the Monitor, November 4). Following the collapse of negotiations with Kristopans last week, the People’s Party opted for the role of an opposition party.
The new government is based on a coalition of the Latvia’s Way, Fatherland and Freedom and New parties–which hold a total of only forty-six out of 100 parliamentary seats. The government expects the support of the Social-Democratic Alliance for passing legislation and possibly for survival in office. The situation also artificially maximizes the clout of the small New Party in the minority coalition. These arrangements are not without risk to Latvia’s top policy priorities, since the Social-Democratic Alliance opposes free-market economics while the New Party is lukewarm toward the national goal of joining NATO.
The counterproductive outcome stems mainly from an intense rivalry between Kristopans and other Latvia’s Way politicians on the one hand and People’s Party leader Andris Skele on the other hand. The hostility dates back to 1996 when Skele, as prime minister at the time, targeted a number of ministers and other officials on charges of corruption or conflict of interest. Some politicians perceive Skele as a would-be authoritarian figure and his People’s Party (created shortly before the elections) as designed to advance his ambitions. Although Skele and his party were prepared to take second place to Latvia’s Way in the new government, Kristopans ultimately maneuvered them out of any share of power.
The rivalry is not merely personal, though Kristopans has injected an emotional element (see the Monitor, October 9, November 4). Local observers consider that Latvia’s Way is associated with a group of businessmen centered on the city of Ventspils, led by Parekss Banka president Valery Kargin and Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs; and that the People’s Party is associated with business interests in the food-processing industry, in which Skele himself has substantial interests. President Guntis Ulmanis made serious but ultimately futile efforts to both reconcile the two parties and ensure the formation of a stable majority government (BNS, November 23-28).
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