If the sunlit terraces are any indication, Latvia’s ruling classes have little to worry about. During the summer you can see the great and the not-so-good lounging outside the cafes that circle the parliament building, luring deputies in between strenuous sessions.
Sipping coffee and nibbling cakes, the deputies can often be observed holding court in front of party underlings or having an impromptu meeting with some business contact. Every time I see one of them with a leather briefcase under the table I wonder whether they might be following the lead of former prime minister Indulis Emsis and walking around with a bag stuffed full of cash for some absolutely innocent purpose.
The deputies look relaxed and confident. Naturally, I eavesdrop whenever possible. Occasionally their conversation will venture into what this or that rival party will do, but never with a sense of urgency or threat. After all, the other parties haven’t got a clue, have they?
As a rule the lower the speaker’s own opinion poll rating, the more blithely unconcerned they appear to be about October’s general election. Some of those I listen to are among the most widely despised politicians in the country. They are the most relaxed, placing successive dainty buns and pastries into their cakeholes before chewing with their mouths open like lords at a Tudor banquet. There is no sense that the trough is about to be taken away.
A few months ago I was genuinely excited by the prospect of the general election. But with every passing day I am getting more depressed about the whole thing. Real electioneering is only just starting with parties revealing their candidate lists.
Let’s start with the positives. At least some sort of political consolidation is taking place. Parties are forming themselves intomore or less coherent blocs with Unity for the Euro-enthusiast progressives; For The Good Of Latvia! (don’t forget the hysterical excalmation mark!) for “business” – for which read the oligarchs – and latterly we’ve also had the rather nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom party teaming up with the extremely nationalist All For Latvia.
Let’s not forget that and the Russophile Harmony Centre is also technically an alliance of five diferent parties, though they have been effective in acting like a single entity and started their consolidation long before the ‘Latvian’ parties could bring themselves to talk to each other.
Terms such as ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’ so beloved of international commentators are largely meaningless in a Latvian political context, outstripped only by Latvia’s “Greens” who should on no account be confused with Green parties elsewhere. After all the Greens’ likely candidate for Prime Minister is mayor of an oil town who has been on trial for money laundering and bribery for the last few years.
The Greens and their sub-parties notably haven’t joined up with anyone else, hopeful that their fairly strong vote amongst bumpkins and Ulmanis nostalgists will leave them holding the balance of power.
So far so good. But these new election blocs have the appearance of shotgun weddings. Aware that the Harmony Centre can count on a getting 25-30% of the vote from Russians, the increasingly fractious Latvian parties realised they needed to pool their resources or face the prospect of failing to cross the 5% threshold necessary to get into parliament.
But like all marriages of convenience, they do not give much of an impression of permanence and remain far, far short of mergers. Parties such as New Era and the Civic Union have virtually no major policy disagreements. But the Civic Union was formed as a breakaway of New Era and with such a small pool of politicos to choose from, personality clashes abound.
Similarly with For The Good Of Latvia. Andris Skele of the People’s Party and Ainars Slesers of the Latvia First/Latvian Way Party (which despite its name actually IS a merged party) are both oligarchs, both cynical populists and both either unaware or uncaring of how deeply they are loathed by most of the population. Probably their overgrown egos are the main things keeping them from a full-on act of union. For the record Skele now needs Slesers much more than Slesers needs Skele.
Their election strategy is basically to pretend they had nothing to do with Latvia’s catastrophic “fat years” rather than being major architects of the bubble economy. Maybe the populace is stupid enough to swallow their ridiculous promises yet again (already we have had classics such as “1,000 lats for everyone when they become an adult” and “families with three kids pay no income tax”) but I don’t believe Latvian voters are stupid enough to believe their hollow guff any more.
Latvians, on the other hand, seem to think they are that stupid. Every time I ask someone what they think of the upcoming election they sigh and shrug. “Nothing will change,” they say, “The same people will be in charge taking care of themselves and not caring about anything else.”
Interestingly this has been the reaction from both Latvians and Russians. Everyone seems equally disillusioned. For all the repositioning and posturing of the parties there are very, very few new faces. The most significant is Sarmite Elerte, former editor of the Diena newspaper, but her aside it’s business as usual.
It’s also true that every party has some good people and some nutcases. The nasty People’s Party retains the services of the extremely capable Maris Riekstins as well as the unappealing Vents Krauklis and buffoon Atis Slakteris. The Fatherlanders have the intelligent Roberts Zile to offset their ranks of boors and bovver boys. And while the Civic Union has my personal favourite, the urbane Karlis Sadurskis, it also has the preening Girts Valdis Kristovskis whom no-one could possibly like quite as much as he likes himself.
Disillusion breeds apathy, which means no-one much bothers to vote, which tends to mean the results are the same as before, which breeds apathy… and so on. But it seems the general mood really is that no-one can be bothered with politics any more. In one way that is a good thing because the political classes deserve to be taken down a peg or two. But whether they get voted in on the back of a million votes or a hundred, they will still have the same access to power and its abuses.
Calls for “change” are ten-a-penny in political discourse these days. But if Latvia does not seize October’s opportunity to do away with the discredited status quo and set up a Saeima in a different form, it’s hard to see change ever occuring. If an economic recession of gargantuan proportions, countless corruption scandals and massive migration aren’t enough to prompt Latvians to exercise their right to vote, they already know what to expect: more of the same.