Urban Warfare

Dombrovskis - like Lacplesis with spectacles

Along to the Vienotiba (Unity) headquarters on Barona iela this morning for a press conference that was interesting not so much for what it revealed as for what it suggested about Vienotiba’s pre-election strategy and possible post-election outcomes.

Ostensiby the presser announced that a survey of 30,000 people showed that 70 per cent of them thought incumbent Valdis Dombrovskis would make a better prime minister than Janis Urbanovics of the Russia-friendly Saskanas Centrs (Harmony Centre). Bearing in mind that Latvia’s population is split ethnically in a similar proportion, the news was less than sensational.

More intriguing was the way the information was presented. The Vienotiba campaign headquarters resembles nothing so much as an eco shop thanks to its clever cardboard furniture made by Latvian company Foldlife. All it needs to complete the impression is a shelf of Madara cosmetics in the corner.

The results were presented by a trio of Unity bigwigs (from different parties – not that unified) to a small selection of media whose ample backsides left a lasting impression on the cardboard seats.

It seems that Vienotiba’s strategy is to present Urbanovics as the bogeyman, a Kremlin-linked character of dubious loyalty who would pull the country out of NATO and turn it into a Russian vassal state. And of course there is his recent gaffe in which he warned of a “Bishkek” situation in Latvia unless his party is in government – virtually a warning of civil war.

The strategy has a few things going for it. It means Vienotiba doesn’t have to campaign too hard against its current coalition partners, ZZS and TB/LNNK. It stops short of playing the ethnic card overtly but has clear undertones of Russophobia that might help win a few votes from the nationalist TB/LNNK which has lurched further to the right.

Perhaps most effectively, making Urbanovics the only clear alternative to Dombrovskis helps neutralise the challenge of the big-spending oligarch party, PLL. Vote for them and you will end up with a coalition with Urbanovics at the helm, Vienotiba suggests. A vote for PLL is really a vote for Saskanas Centrs and selling Latvia lock stock and barrell to the east.

But the strategy has some risks. It is an example of negative campaigning – concentrating on the other side’s defects. It’s a legitimate strategy, particularly when so many of Vienotiba’s opponents are directly responsible for Latvia’s economic disaster. But having never been in government, Urbanovics certainly cannot be blamed for the notorious “fat years.”

One gets the feeling that the liberal, cosmopolitan and sophisticated Vienotiba types like adopting the moral high ground. I doubt they will be as comfortable in a streetfighting campaign as brawlers like Slesers and Skele and wonder if they really have the stomach for a “nasty” campaign.

Firing all their ammo at Urbanovics also seems to rule out any chance of a post-election rapprochement or even coalition with Saskanas Centrs. While a “grand coalition” of the likely two biggest parties was always an unlikely outcome it was not impossible. It should be remembered that Saskanas Centrs supported the government (via abstention) in some crucial parliamentary votes in recent months when it could have joined the Skelites and Sleserites to inflict defeats.

It could be argued that a Vienotiba/Saskanas Centrs coalition, which could have a healthy majority, might offer the best chance for Latvia to resolve its internal conflicts once and for all and forge some sort of new idea of what it means to be a modern Latvian, irrespective of ethnicity.

The hodge-podge patchwork coalitions of recent years involving four or five parties have not been effective. A two party coalition with a broad consensus would really offer a break with the past and have a real madate.

Let’s hope that in targeting Urbanovics, Vienotiba isn’t inadvertently strengthening the status quo, condemning the country to more of the squabbles and turf wars that may ultimately threaten its own unity.

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