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Cablegate: The Players in Latvia's Parliamentary Elections

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INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE

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TAGS: PGOV PREL PHUM LG
SUBJECT: The players in Latvia's parliamentary elections

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1. SUMMARY. Latvia enters the 2006 Saeima (parliament) election
race with a minority government led by Prime Minister Aigars
Kalvitis (People's Party) that includes the center-right People's
Party, centrist Greens and Farmers Union and conservative First
Party. The country will likely emerge from the October 7 elections
with a fragmented parliament in which no single party will be
overall winner. The new parliament is expected to include the
Russia-oriented For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL) faction,
the People's Party, New Era, the Greens and Farmers Union, the First
Party/Latvia's Way slate, the nationalist Fatherland and
Freedom/LNNK and the leftist Harmony Center. The other parties will
have to scramble hard to cross the five-percent threshold. END
SUMMARY.

2. A total of 19 parties and party associations have fielded
candidates for the coming elections. Opinion polls suggest that no
more than seven have realistic chances to be represented in the
Saeima. Ex-central banker Einars Repse's New Era (JL) party, which
was the most dramatic newcomer on Latvia's political scene grabbing
a fourth of the Saeima (parliament) seats in 2002, the People's
Party (TP), the Greens and Farmers (ZZS), and the ethnic
Russian-dominated PCTVL are neck and neck in the polls. Each will
probably win around 15 - 20 seats with the former two or three
likely to be at the core of the next government.

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3. New Era (JL) has defined its orientation as center-right and
pro-Western. Its main campaign slogans focus on clean government
and fighting corruption. Created before the 2002 elections, it won
the plurality of seats (26 out of 100) in the previous elections,
and led the coalition building talks. New Era is entering the
election season as one of the most popular political parties,
although its popularity has shrunk compared to 2002. The party left
the coalition government earlier in the year over a vote-buying
scandal involving the First Party. This is now widely viewed as a
mistake, with even party members saying that it only reinforced
their opponents' portrayal of New Era as unable to work well with
others. The party's image has been tarnished by party leader Einars
Repse's flamboyant lifestyle and his questionable financial
dealings. His recent involvement in a fatal car accident could also
have a drag on the party's popularity. Also, a scandal that broke
out in mid-August following the newspaper publication of transcripts
of phone conversations implicating New Era in using illegal campaign
funds may hurt the party in the run-up to the elections. To bolster
its chances in the upcoming elections, New Era has managed to
persuade the well-known pro-independence activist and ex-Foreign
Minister Sandra Kalniete to run for the Saeima on the New Era
ticket. They have also announced Kalniete as their choice for
President in next year's indirect elections, a move that drew mostly
yawns from political observers.

4. The For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL) ticket
represents a pro-Russian political group advocating automatic
citizenship for all residents of Latvia at the time of independence
and demands semi-official status for the Russian language. PCTVL
professes statist economic policy, implicit anti-EU and explicit
anti-NATO foreign policy and promises to mend fences with Russia.
PCTVL appeared on the Latvian political scene in 1998 when four
groups, mainly representing the interests of non-Latvians, formed a
joint slate. In 2002, PCTVL grabbed a quarter of the Saeima seats
but was left in deep opposition as its ideology was anathema to
ethnic Latvian parties. In early 2003, PCTVL disintegrated due to
rivalry between the leaders of various groups but several Russian
nationalists centered around the Equal Rights movement revived the
brand-name popular among local Russians. PCTVL power base, located
mainly in Riga and the eastern region of Latgale, consists almost
entirely of ethnically non-Latvian voters.

5. The People's Party (TP) was founded before the 1998 Saeima
elections by then highly popular ex-prime minister Andris Skele who
is one of the richest men in Latvia and is dubbed as one of this
country's "oligarchs." TP is a conservative, and pragmatically
nationalist, party. Its base consists of business people and
educated urban electorate, mainly in western and north-eastern
Latvia. Even though TP founder Skele has formally left active
politics and is a rank-and file member of the People's Party, most
pundits and TP's political opponents believe that he still wields
significant power within the party. TP's prime minister Aigars
Kalvitis currently leads the minority government.

6. The Green party and the Farmers' Union formed a joint slate (ZZS)
before the 2002 elections with a view to winning more parliamentary
seats. ZZS platform appears to be centrist although it is trying to
recruit in its ranks public figures of all political convictions.
ZZS is believed to be the pocket party of the wealthy and
influential mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs. In July, the
Prosecutor General's Office indicted Lembergs for corruption, money
laundering and abuse of office. Lembergs will not run for
parliament; however, ZZS has made him their candidate for prime
minister. (Note: There is no requirement that the prime minister,
or any other minister, be an elected member of parliament, but it
has been the tradition for prime minister. End note.) ZZS has been
in every ruling coalition since the 2002 elections, and had a brief
spell of premiership in 2004 when Indulis Emsis led a shaky minority

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government.

7. As the only mainstream true-blue nationalist party, For
Fatherland and Freedom (TB/LNNK) clearly pitches its message at the
nationalistic ethnic Latvian voter. The party's selling points are
tough line on naturalization and language, and hawkish attitude
towards Russia. TB/LNNK's economic program is fairly market
oriented, and in foreign policy it is staunchly pro-NATO and pro-EU.
It won 16 Saeima seats in the 1998 elections but in 2002 managed to
squeak into parliament with only 7 seats. However, it did well in
the 2004 European parliament elections winning 4 of Latvia's 8
seats. Currently, TB/LNNK sits in the opposition on its own choosing
so that it can run for the Saeima as an outsider. Its election
chances are difficult to measure since most of its talent sits in
Strasbourg and will not be running for the Saeima.

8. Latvia's First Party (LPP) is a business project of the wealthy
businessman Ainars Slesers. It has defined its orientation as
centrist, and has announced that its activities will be firmly based
on "Christian values." Before the 2006 elections, LPP appears to
have adopted an anti-gay stance as its key campaign message. Owing
to excellent TV commercials, LPP won nine Saeima seats in 2002,
although the polls conducted before the elections predicted that it
might not cross the five-percent threshold. The party's popularity
suffered earlier this year when its leader and then transport
minister Ainars Slesers was implicated in a vote-buying scandal in
the city of Jurmala. Nevertheless, Slesers remains LPP's prime
ministerial candidate. In order to bolster its waning popularity,
LPP has teamed up with liberal Latvia's Way (Latvijas Cels, LC),
once a popular and star-studded party that was represented in every
Latvian government from 1993 until 2002. LC suffered a crushing
defeat in the 2002 elections and has been struggling to stay alive
ever since. Most political observers point out the ideological
discrepancy between the conservative LPP and the liberal LC.

9. Harmony Center (SC) is a coalition centering around the
National Harmony Party but without its long-time leader Janis
Jurkans. It was created formally in 2005 and inherited eight of
National Harmony party's Saeima members. At its convention, SC
elected a young politician and TV journalist, Nils Usakovs, as its
leader for the 2006 elections. National Harmony Party was a key
member of the PCTVL bloc before it disintegrated. Now the two will
compete for the votes of almost the same electorate. SC appears to
be centrist and more moderate that PCTVL on ethnic policy (yet it
still calls, among other things, for non-citizens to be able to vote
in local elections and for semi-official status to the Russian
language) and more business oriented, although it has admitted that
its voters will nevertheless mainly be non-Latvian.

10. COMMENT: A combination of voter apathy, lack of any defining
issues, and absence of any new political force mean that Latvia's
upcoming elections will in all probability result in a fragmented
parliament in which at least three parties will be needed to set up
a viable majority coalition. Unlike in all previous post-Soviet
elections in Latvia, no brand-new political force capable of winning
the plurality of Saeima seats has appeared. As a result, all major
center-right and centrist parties currently in the Saeima and/or the
government coalition will be competing for votes of the same jaded
electorate. Due to various recent scandals involving leading
politicians (e.g. the vote-buying scandal in Jurmala), and the fact
that there are no charismatic fresh-faces running, the voter turnout
is likely to fall. In a meeting with Pol/Econ chief, Chair of the
Central Election Commission Arnis Cimdars estimated the turnout to
drop from 72 percent in 2002 to about 62 percent this time.
BAILEY

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