Cablegate: New Latvian Parties Struggling to Gain Traction

DE RUEHRA #0693/01 3181536
P 131536Z NOV 08



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. Summary: With public trust in established Latvian political
parties hitting record lows, two new parties have emerged hoping to
gain momentum in the June 2009 local and European elections before
settling down in Saeima, Latvia's parliament, in the 2010 elections.
Both Sabiedriba Citai Politikai (Society for a different politics,
SCP) and Pilsoniska Savieniba (Civic Union, PS) came into being
after splits within the existing parties and thus lack promising
newcomers. Yet, both will try to overcome the public skepticism of
politics and repeat the success of other Latvian parties formed
shortly before elections and winning them. Their greatest
challenges will be raising funds and convincing voters that they
offer anything new. End summary.

2. The core of the economically center-left SCP is formed by former
members of the ruling rightist People's Party (TP), most notably
former minister of foreign affairs Artis Pabriks and minister of
regional development Aigars Stokenbergs. The latter was expelled
from TP for publicly criticizing the party in October 2007 and
founded an NGO "Society for Political Change," which in 2008 was
transformed into a political party. He was joined by Pabriks, who
left TP after having expressed his frustration with the party's
handling of attempts to dismiss the anti-corruption chief. The party
has declared establishing a welfare state similar to those found in
the Scandinavian countries its main aim and led the fight for a
failed referendum in August to increase pensions. SCP counts
approximately 450 registered members and was supported by 3.7% of
voters in an October public opinion poll by SKDS. Pabriks and
Stokenbergs are the only ones representing the party in Saeima and
they cannot run for other office or their seats will return to TP.
Both MP's, as well as party chair Gatis Kokins, have cited raising
funds as the chief need of the party.

3. PS defines itself as a "party of patriots, rooted in the regions"
and mainly comprises former members of the Fatherland & Freedom
(TB/LNNK) and New Era (JL) parties. Party leaders Sandra Kalniete
(previously JL) and Girts Valdis Kristovskis (previously TB/LNNK)
have for years belonged to the Latvian political elite, serving as
ministers of foreign affairs and defense respectively. PS, which was
founded in April 2008, is considered an official faction in Saeima,
consisting of six MP's. It is set to grow to seven as a TB/LNNK
deputy, convicted of fraud and forced to resign from Saeima, will be
replaced by a former TB/LNNK member who has since joined PS.
According to the October SKDS poll, PS is supported by 1.8% of
voters. Interestingly, the party's poll numbers dropped by about
half when pollsters stooped referring to it as "Kalniete and
Kristovskis' new party" and instead used its official name. It has
around 400 registered members.

4. The first test for both parties will be municipal elections
scheduled for June 2009. These elections will be the first in which
parties will need to secure 5% of the vote in each district to win
election to the local council. Despite low popularity ratings and
the 5% threshold, officials in both parties are optimistic about
their future prospects in conversations with us. SCP is even aiming
for at least 20% of votes in the Riga city election (highly
unlikely, in our view). Both parties are banking on the low
popularity of current parties and lack of trust in the political
system to propel them to victory. According to a Eurobarometer poll,
Latvian trust in political parties is lower than in any other
country of the European Union, with only 5% of the residents saying
they trusted parties. According to polls, only Harmony Center, the
Russian-dominated alliance of left wing parties, has an approval
rating above the 10% mark.

5. In Latvia, newly-founded parties have a tradition of winning in
every election since the restoration of independence (save 2006 when
there were no new ethnic-Latvian parties). However, all of these
parties succeeded by bringing in "fresh faces" not previously
involved in politics and who enjoyed high personal popularity with
the public. Although both parties have well known political names
in them, neither possesses any notable fresh faces at this time.
Both parties are hoping to recruit high-profile new members. SCP is
known to be actively courting the former editor-in-chief of Diena
newspaper, Sarmita Elerte, and PS has pursued some younger people
best known from music or television. Rumors that former president
Vike Freiberga would join SCP have so far been just rumors.

6. Comment: In the short run, the success of both parties will
depend on their ability to dissociate themselves from the extremely
unpopular governing coalition, in which both have roots, and to
attract financing and new members. In this respect, problems could
arise particularly for SCP as it faces the hard task of convincing
the public its leaders have nothing to do with their former party,
TP. Additionally, Latvia's tough economic climate makes raising the
needed funds even more difficult. And too much success in fund
raising would only arouse public suspicion that these parties offer
nothing new. The first real test for both parties will be the
municipal elections in June 2009, especially in Riga. A strong
showing will make them viable forces for the 2010 Saeima elections.
A weak one will almost certainly lead to their closure or merger
with other parties.

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