Will He, Won’t He Join The Dance?

Divided we stand - Dombrovskis and Zatlers

When President Valdis Zatlers announced his intention to dissolve parliament on May 28, he became briefly the most popular Latvian president on record. He took his dramatic action – voice trembling with emotion – ostensibly as a final stand against the influence of oligarchy. Yet around six weeks later, he might be about to help hand power back to the very forces he was supposedly attacking.

Zatlers’ term expires on May 7, whereupon he will be replaced by Andris Berzins, a wealthy former banker who if not regarded as a fully-formed oligarch himself does have links to some of the “pure” oligarchs. Berzins’ true colours remain to be seen. On the one hand is the clearly questionable way he used around a quarter of a million euros of EU funds to help build a “guest house” that is his home and his curious decision to get married to his long-term partner, in secret, just a few days before his inauguration. On the other hand, some of the new recruits to his staff are capable professionals who should do a decent job.

But the main question now concerns Zatlers, not Berzins. The day after he steps down, Zatlers is due to reveal his future plans. He has already dropped broad hints about forming his own political party. Such a move would, I believe, be a catastrophic decision that ultimately would merely retrench the oligarchs’ hold in a slightly different form.

In mid-June Zatlers was offered what amounted to an unconditional offer to join the Vienotiba political bloc headed by PM Valdis Dombrovskis. It even came with a promise to put Zatlers at the top of their electoral list if he so desired, giving him a guaranteed seat in the next parliament. Vienotiba is clearly the political force with which Zatlers is most closely aligned, even if their thoughts do not always overlap – but then the thoughts of the three different political parties constituting Vienotiba don’t always overlap, either.

Of course, Vienotiba’s offer wasn’t just goodwill. They know full well that having Zatlers’ name on their ballot paper would not only ensure they emerged from September’s election as the largest party, it would even give them a shot at an unprecedented overall majority. Failing that, they could form a coalition with the National Alliance bloc which has proven far more cooperative as an opposition party than their ZZS and oligarch-influenced coalition partners have been in government. The National Alliance is likely to increase its representation in the next parliament into double figures from its current 7 MPs and may even double its numbers.

Meanwhile the oligarch-run PLL party is clearly a busted flush. It knows as much and is unlikely even to bother contesting the elections. Its leaders will instead seek ways to grow their influence in ZZS and Saskanas Centrs. So to a certain extent the oligarch problem  will be dealt with anyway – only the influence of Aivars Lembergs within ZZS will remain a pressing concern and a likely dip in ZZS’s showing at the polls to below 20 seats may even be enough to get the decent ZZS members – of whom there are a few such as Raimonds Vejonis – asking whether they might be better off without the weight of Lembergs around their necks.

So even without any action from Zatlers we would see the number of political forces in parliament reduced to four from the current five, and the exit of most overt oligarch involvement.

However, it is looking increasingly likely that instead of demanding that Vienotiba finally amalgamate into a single party in order to attract his support (which would have been an effective way of getting them to stop their bickering) he is going to form his own political party. Ironically,Vienotiba would be the biggest losers of such action which would effectively split the centre-right vote and hand the election to Saskanas Centrs which can rely on its core vote even with its most bankable asset, Riga mayor Nils Usakovs, off the scene for health reasons.

SC, which likes to portray itself as a left-wing party but is just as in thrall to wealthy backers and vested interests as the other parties – should then be able to form a government with ZZS. Admittedy this would be historic inasmuch as it would be the first time a “Russian” party had been in power in post-independence Latvia. But the smarter members of SC must know that they would destroy their claim to be standing up for the common man (they are already on dangerous ground after backing for Berzins’ presidential bid).

At ‘best’ this would merely perpetuate Lembergs’ influence in such vital areas as transport. At worst I think  a government constituted in such a manner could actually prompt fairly widespread civil disobedience. Either way, it would be hard to imagine the government lasting more than a year, returning us back to where we are right now.

An alternative, less likely scenario might see SC and Vienotiba brought together by a Zatlers acting as “honest broker” and recycling his thoughts about national unity and the like. It would be interesting but would be difficult if Zatlers had just stolen a large share of Vienotiba’s vote and prompted its break-up intosmall parties again. The National Alliance would never get involved in a government involving SC and would effectively become the main opposition party (ZZS would be rudderless in opposition) leading to gradual radicalisation of the political landscape.

But even without taking the parliamentary shakedown into account, I question the wisdom of a “Zatlers party”. He found approval as a figurehead, not a politician. His main quality – that he seems like an honest man – won’t stretch all that far in daily political life and will be eroded as he inevitably seeks compromise and accommodation with other parties. He lacks charisma, is not a great public speaker (his dissolution statement was endearing for its naive directness more than its rhetoric) and sometimes gets flustered in debates. Stripped of presidential privelege his opponents will relish the opportunity of getting stuck into him.

Moreover, where exactly is the pool of undiscovered talent to form the backbone of his party? At the moment it seems to consist of attempts to woo a few newer members of Vienotiba (so again, why not simply join them?) and some other fairly prominent figures from NGOs and the like who are understandably lukewarm about quitting their jobs to climb aboard a bandwagon which will likely have one brief hurrah. For whoever does sign up will have to cope with the fact that whatever name his party has, it will effectively be the Zatlers party and all of its support will depend on the popularity of its leader – a popularity that will never, ever be as high as it was on May 28.

Finally and perhaps slightly cynically, Zatlers might also consider that in four years’ time he should have an excellent chance of regaining the presidency – provided he doesn’t  get too directly involved in politics in the meantime.

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