Pro-Russia Party Wins Snap Latvian Election

By Gary Peach (September 17, 2011)

A left-wing, pro-Russia party captured the most votes in Latvia’s parliamentary elections, marking a milestone for the tiny Baltic nation where parties distrustful of Russia have dominated all national elections since independence 20 years ago.

With some 95 percent of ballots counted early Sunday, Harmony Center, a party catering to the country’s ethnic Russian minority, had 29.2 percent of the vote.

Since 1991, when Latvia regained its independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union, no such party had either won an election or been included in a coalition government, a streak that Harmony hopes to change after Saturday’s election. But other parties were already maneuvering to shut Harmony out of any coalition government.

About one-third of Latvia’s 2.2 million people are minorities whose native language is Russian. Many of them are “non-citizens” who lack the right to vote. Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union for a half-century after World War II.

An upstart party formed by former President Valdis Zatlers was in second place with 20.5 percent, while Unity, the senior partner in the current ruling center-right coalition, was third with 18.2 percent, a sharp decrease from the 31.2 percent it amassed one year ago in its election victory.

Leaders of these two parties — which could together pull in about 42 seats in the 100-member Parliament — have suggested they would begin coalition talks immediately in order to seize the initiative from Harmony in forming the next government.

Analysts believe the two parties are likely to leave Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis in his position, which would be a key signal to international lenders and investors who want assurances that Latvia will stick to its commitments to cut its budget deficit and keep on track to adopting the euro in 2014.

Still, to secure a parliamentary majority, the two parties will probably have to invite one of three parties expected to break the 5 percent barrier required to gain seats in Parliament.

Other than Harmony, there is the populist Greens and Farmers Union, which was gaining 12.2 percent of the vote, and the right-wing National Alliance, with 13.5 percent.

But since one of the two center-right parties has sworn not to cooperate with the populists, they face a stark choice for a third coalition partner: either the pro-Russia Harmony or the Russia-hating National Alliance.

“Forming a coalition, I think, will be more difficult than a year ago,” former President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told public radio on Saturday. “Honestly speaking, I don’t see that we are being offered something that could drastically change the situation.”

The snap election takes place after the previous legislature, elected last October, was dissolved in a nationwide referendum in July. Some 94 percent of voters supported dissolution.

The referendum was held after Zatlers in May proposed dissolving the legislature for lawmakers’ interference in a major probe into high-level corruption.

Zatlers, who was not re-elected by Parliament in June, went on to create his own party, whose chief aim is to dismantle the cozy relationship between business and government in Latvia.

The vote count shows that Zatlers might accomplish this goal. The Greens and Farmers Union, which is led by Zatlers’ archenemy, Aivars Lembergs, is certain to see its position in Parliament weakened, and may even be excluded from the government for the first time in nine years.

The Slesers’ Reform Party, headed by another influential politician-businessman, Ainars Slesers, had only 2.4 of the vote and is unlikely to make the 5 percent threshold.

Zatlers decided to dissolve Parliament in May after lawmakers granted Slesers immunity and barred investigators from searching his properties for evidence in the anti-corruption probe.

The decision on whom to nominate for prime minister rests with Zatlers’ successor, President Andris Berzins.