By Daunis Auers (University of Latvia)

The last few years have seen parts of East-Central Europe turn to the populist right. Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party won the 2010 and 2014 parliamentary elections with landslide majorities. Poland’s Law and Justice party has held the presidency and controlled both houses of parliament since October 2015. This has resulted in rising euroscepticism, anti-Americanism and nativism in the region. Does Latvia’s new government continue or buck this trend?

The election of a new prime minister on Thursday 11 February has moved the balance of power from the more centrist Unity party to the conservative and sporadically eurosceptic Green/Farmers Union. Māris Kučinskis, a grizzled 54 year old parliamentarian and former Minister of Local Government, was nominated to be Prime Minister by the Green/Farmers Union (ZZS) whose leadership has often adopted an anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric. Kučinskis now leads a three-party coalition of ZZS, Unity and the National Alliance (NA). The Russophone Harmony Social Democracy and two small parties remain in opposition.

The previous government, led by Laimdota Straujuma (Unity), had resigned on December 7, 2015 following the prime minister’s clash with Solvita Āboltiņa, Unity’s ambitious chairwoman (and former speaker of parliament). Āboltiņa had made a play for the prime minister’s post by calling for Straujuma to resign over an investment scandal concerning airBaltic, the national air carrier, as well as tensions over the EU refugee allocation plan. However, it was not to be for Āboltiņa. NA, the third of the three parties in the governing coalition, stated that it would not join any government coalition led by the ex-speaker. NA party leader Raivis Dzintars told the press that the party’s membership had unequivocally told the leadership that NA should not support an Aboltina-led government while other senior NA leaders argued that Aboltina had a ‘questionable reputation’.

ZZS seized advantage of the temporary political vacuum by putting forward its own list of candidates, eventually rallying around Kučinskis. After a few weeks of deliberation President Raimonds Vējonis (also a former ZZS parliamentarian and government minister) nominated Kučinskis.

Prospects for the Kučinskis government

Although the next parliamentary election is not scheduled until October 2018, a quick glance at the historical record shows that the odds remain stacked against the Kučinskis government retaining power until then. This is Latvia’s nineteenth government since August 1993, meaning that the average government stays in office just over one year. In terms of effective government – counting only the number of days that governments effectively govern, thus excluding lame duck executives that have de jure resigned but remain in office simply because a new executive has not yet been elected to office – the average government holds power for less than a year.

Despite the high turnover of cabinet governments, Latvia has seen a remarkably high degree of policy continuity over the last quarter of a century. This is largely because all government coalitions have been composed of centre-right political parties. Russophone parties, which typically hold around a quarter of parliamentary seats, have never been in government. As a result, the political ‘holy trinity’ of support for European Union (EU) and NATO membership as well as the construction and maintenance of a liberal market economy has rarely been challenged and certainly not at the governmental level.

This policy stability is likely to continue. The Kučinskis government is a continuation of the three party coalition that has been in power since January 2014. Just over half of previous prime minister Straujuma’s ministers have kept their posts while other ministers have switched seats – for example Dana Reizniece Ozola (ZZS) has moved from Economic to Finance Ministry while Janis Reirs (Unity) shifted from Finance to Welfare. Moreover, both the Foreign and Defence Ministers have stayed in office and the Kučinskis government is equally dedicated to raising defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2018 and committing to the transatlantic relationship with the USA.

This is not to say that nothing has changed. The balance of power has clearly shifted away from Unity and towards ZZS – this is reflected in the higher share of ministerial portfolios now controlled by ZZS – and this will be reflected in government priorities. Nevertheless, it is also clear that Kučinskis is no Orban and that Latvia is not lurching to the populist right.

What’s on the agenda?

Prime Minister Kučinskis has stated that he will focus on domestic socio-economic issues and leave much of the foreign policy agenda in the hands of his experienced and internationally respected Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs. Kučinskis has proposed to continue the previous government’s thorough review of the tax system (although he has asked domestic scholars, think-tanks and associations to offer contributions and proposals in addition to the World Bank experts contracted by Straujuma’s government) and to focus his efforts on promoting economic growth as the key way to stem Latvia’s sharp demographic decline. His government’s action plan also aims to tackle Latvia’s stagnant higher education and research environment and consider reforms to the financing and delivery of the health system.

Nevertheless, while Kučisnkis would clearly prefer to focus on domestic issues, much of 2016 is likely to be dominated by Latvia’s response to Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis. The first weekend of February saw the initial two families (one Syrian the other Eritrean – a total of six people ) from the EU refugee relocation plan arrive at Mucenieki, a village about 20km outside of Riga where Latvia’s refugee processing center is based. This prompted a small, rowdy 200 strong anti-refugee protest at Latvia’s symbolic Freedom Monument.

The refugee issue will be tricky for Kučinskis. The prime minister will have to balance the sharply polarized positions of Unity (pro-refugee) and the National Alliance (anti-refugee) in an environment that is likely to become ever more heated as an increasing number of refugees relocate to Latvia. The early signs are that he will skillfully maneuver between the two extremes – the government declaration states that Latvia will fulfil the commitment made to its EU partners in the relocation plan but will not agree to accept any additional refugees.

Looking ahead

The next year will see political parties begin realignment and reconstruction processes in preparation for local government elections in 2017, national elections in 2018, and European polls in 2019.

Unity appears an increasingly weakened force. It is bitterly divided between mainstream and liberal camps. The mainstream group is broadly supportive of party chair Āboltiņa while a smaller cluster of six more liberal deputies is rather more critical of her handling of the party and is rumoured to have considered breaking from Unity and building a new liberal party. Both camps blame each other for both losing the PM post and for splitting the party. Nobody is coming out well from this warfare. In December polling Unity’s support had dwindled to a record low of 6% (Latvia’s parties must pass a 5% threshold in order to gain seats in the legislature). Former two-time European Commissioner Andris Piebalgs has tried to steady the Unity ship by stating that he will stand for (and likely win) the party chairmanship at the year-end congress. He is a political moderate with great authority, although he will struggle to keep the different strands of the party together. Nevertheless, Unity in some shape or form (possibly renamed and rebranded) will survive.

New parties – offering fresh faces if not new ideas – typically fare well in elections with Latvia’s jaded electorate. One new force likely to campaign in 2017 and 2018 will be led by independent parliamentary deputy Artuss Kaimiņš, a populist shock-jock DJ and ex-actor whose personal popularity drove the Regional Alliance party into parliament in 2014 (although he left the party’s whip in December). Kaimiņš’ nationalist-populist anti-elite, anti-refugee rhetoric is popular among younger voters and could well drive the party into parliament in 2018, although his propensity to insult other politicians, film parliamentary plenaries, committee meetings and chats with other politicians on the street make it hard to envisage him as a government coalition partner.

However, these are issues for the future. In the short-term the Kučinskis government will seek to re-invigorate the Latvian economy in order to stem a labour migration flow to Western Europe that saw the Latvian population fall by 12% between 2004 and 2015. At the same time, he will seek to balance opposing positions on the refugee crisis while sustaining Latvia’s international partnerships in Europe and the US. This will be no easy task. However, Kučinskis may just have the political nous and experience to pull it off.

This post first appeared at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) Bulletin available here

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