Like A Scurvy Politician

With a month to go until the Latvian general election, campaigning is finally starting to hot up. The green tick of Vienotiba and the claret roundel of Par Labu Laviju beckon from their offices in central Riga, while Saskanas Centrs’ prime ministerial candidate tries to grab a few headlines and the Green Farmers’ candidate simply writes his own in his personal newspaper.

On TV, LNT has finally produced a decent leadership debate show – imaginatively titled Leaders’ Debate. Each week the top candidates from each of Latvia’s five electoral regions take part in a tightly-regulated head-to-head. The shows are marathon enterprises, lasting three hours with participants standing at lecterns throughout, giving the initial impression that they are taking part in a spelling bee.

So far we’ve had two shows: last week from Zemgale and yesterday from Vidzeme, the Valmiera Drama Theatre to be precise, which is more used to staging the plays of Rainis and Shakespeare. Both shows started slowly but were compulsive viewing by the time they wrapped up shortly before midnight. Both also suggested a couple of interesting election trends.

Most striking was the performance of candidates from the ultra-nationalist Visu Latvijai! party which has teamed up with the marginally less radical TB/LNNK to offer a clearly right-wing option to voters. Visu Latvijai! has a questionable past with some people linked to the party coming out with appalling anti-semitic and homophobic statements but under the shrewd  leadership of Raivis Dzintars the party has managed to clean up its act – both literally and figuratively.

Following a strong performance from Imants Paradnieks in the first debate (spoiled only by his Man-from-Delmonte-meets-Al Capone white suit) Dzintars was the clear winner of the Vidzeme debate. Clean cut, smartly turned out and with his glasses lending him a handy air of intelligence, the youthful ‘Vadonis’ put on a very confident and genuinely impressive performance.

There was no great trick to his success but he seemed far more savvy than some of the veteran politicians h was lined up against. He spoke softly but clearly. He was concise in his answers, never getting cut off in mid-sentence like his rivals. He displayed some humour, employed some simple crowd-pleasing techniques such as thanking the audience for their interest, and came across as polite and well-mannered. In short, he looked like he had actually practised for a TV debate.

And like Paradnieks before him, he also showed he was ready to ask tough questions. Paradnieks went on the offensive against former PM and arch-oligarch Andris Skele – a man most Latvians love to hate – much to the latter’s obvious surprise and displeasure. Similarly Dzintars was not afraid to  go toe-to-toe with former President Ulmanis as well as his more predictable attacks against the Russia-friendly Saskanas Centrs and PCTVL candidates who to be fair did reasonable jobs of defending themselves in difficult circumstances.

Prime Minister Dombrovskis started slowly but improved as the show went on, delivering a few withering ripostes to Ulmanis’ criticisms and reminding everyone that it was largely his PLL gang that got the country into such a mess in the first place.

Despite the completely cynical way in which Ulmanis is using his name to bolster the claims of the oligarchs, it is almost possible to feel pity for him. Shaking noticeably as a result of Parkinson’s Disease, he did not look like a man prepared to slog it out in parliament for five years.

He fluffed his attempts at introducing some gravitas, and the PLL manifesto seemed to consist of promising everything (better roads, free school books, kindergarten places, cash for having kids) without ever saying where the money would come from. He even managed to claim personal responsibility for kicking the Soviets out – a somewhat dubious claim.

At various points Ulmanis was booed by the crowd and ended up – perhaps even more tellingly – being jeered. A few years ago it would be unthinkable that an ex-president with the Ulmanis name would end up being laughed at by the mild-mannered burghers of Valmiera. Just think how he would have gone down at the Glasgow Empire.

Such a tragi-comic fall from grace would probably make a suitable setting for a production of King Lear on the very same stage of the Valmiera Drama Theatre where the debate took place.

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