Latvia Centrists in Talks for Possible Majority Rule

By Mike Collier (September 18, 2011)

Latvian centrist parties launched coalition talks Sunday in the wake of a snap general election which saw a leftist pro-Russian party score an unprecedented victory but fall short of a governing majority.

The new anti-corruption Zatlers Reform Party (ZRP), which debuted in the election with a second spot finish, has tapped the third-spot centrist Unity bloc of incumbent Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis to discuss a new government.

Dombrovskis and ZRP founder, ex-president Valdis Zatlers emerged smiling from 90-minute coalition talks Sunday afternoon.

“Our talks will continue and will be intensive and I’m sure they will also be productive,” Zatlers told reporters. “Our focus is on maintaining stability — that is the main aim,” he added.

Despite topping the polls for the first time with over 28 percent popular support or 31 seats, analysts said the pro-Russian Harmony Centre was unlikely to find coalition partners among mainstream parties wary of its ties to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

“There’s no ‘winner takes all’ tradition in Latvia,” Ieva Strode of the SKDS pollsters told AFP Sunday. “Harmony Centre can be left without any position in parliament or in government. The president is under no obligation to nominate the winner,” she added.

The coalition government “core will be the Zatlers Reform Party and Unity,” Riga-based political scientist Daunis Auers told AFP Sunday, also suggesting a fourth-spot nationalist party could join as a junior partner sealing a majority.

“It’s pretty clear which way the government coalition is going,” he added.

The Zatlers Reform Party, the Unity bloc and the National Alliance scored a combined 56 seats in the 100-seat parliament, or Saeima, according to Sunday preliminary official results, creating the possibility of a majority government excluding the top-spot Harmony Centre.

“The ZRP is the closest party to us ideologically (…) Harmony Centre is the furthest,” Unity bloc chief Dombrovskis told reporters following Sunday talks with Zatlers.

He said he would also speak with the National Alliance and the fifth-placed Union of Greens and Farmers — widely dubbed an “oligarch” party — which Zatlers has shunned over perceived corruption.

Freshly elected President Andris Berzins will launch a first round of talks on the formation of a new government on September 28, a spokeswoman confirmed Sunday.

“The president would like to call on parties to form a wider coalition, which would be more stable,” Liga Krapane told Latvia’s commercial LNT TV adding the new government should command at least 50 votes in the unicameral parliament.

Combating corruption and the Latvian-Russian ethnic divide emerged as key issues in the snap poll in the Baltic state struggling to emerge from Europe’s deepest recession.

The winning pro-Russian Harmony Centre is the second largest party in the outgoing parliament and has drawn most of its support from Latvia’s sizable Russian minority, accounting for some 27 percent of the country’s 2.2 million population.

The pro-Russian group also appeared to have gained popularity for pushing for a revision of the terms of a 7.5-billion-euro ($10.9-billion) bailout agreed in December 2008 with the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

The rescue package required a biting austerity drive which slashed public sector wages and pensions.

Saturday’s snap ballot was forced by a July referendum in which more than 90 percent of voters backed a move by then president Valdis Zatlers to dissolve parliament over graft fears in so-called “oligarch parties.”

After being ousted from the presidency in July, Zatlers formed his own party bent on rooting out corruption — a move that proved popular in light of Saturday’s swift rise to second spot in the polls.

Boom turned to bust in Latvia in 2008 when it saw its economy shrink by 25 percent over two years, marking the world’s deepest plunge in output.

The international bailout paired with deep cuts in public spending has pulled the 2004 EU member out of recession, with its economy expect to grow as much as 5.0 percent this year.