Jódzej, 14 ugustu 2003 o.

Latvia turns back the clock

by Latvia correspondent, Marek Pietrzyn

RIGA — Yesterday's parliamentary elections in Latvia seem to have caused a major political earthquake. With 98.9 % of the votes counted, it has become clear that the ultra-right People's Movement for the Kingdom (TKK), led by ex-general Viktors Alksnis, has become the undisputed winner of the elections: the party of the former junta leader will be represented by 29 deputies in the Saeima (out of 100), 24 more than its current five. The voter turnout was remarkably high: 83.4 %.

The three parties that support the centre-left coalition government of prime minister Osvalds Talmanis lose both their majority and more than half of their seats: Talmanis's own Democratic Alliance (DA), falls down from 31 to 15 seats, the Social Democratic LSDDP of foreign minister Inese Paukšta from 21 to 10 seats, and the Maris Straubergs's Latvian People's Front (LTF) from 13 to 4 seats. This means that – even with the hypothetic support of Arturs Blums's Latvian Green Party and Boris Pugo's communist LKSP – it will be impossible for Talmanis to form another majority government; Talmanis has literally been smashed away.

Last night at 2:20, Talmanis acknowledged his dramatic defeat in a short speech that was broadcast live on TV. He congratulated Alksnis with his victory and wished him success with the formation of a new government. Alksnis himself was celebrating his success with his supporters at the time; later that night, he announced a quick formation. "I expect my government will be ready within a month," he said, and added: "I wish Mr. Talmanis equally much luck in the opposition."

The most likely candidates for participation in Alksnis's government will be the conservative Agrarian Union (ZS), that grew from 15 to 21 seats, the new Latvian National Party, a group led by former minister Austris Evers that recently split off from the DA (4 seats), and possibly the small Baltic Romuva Party (4 seats). Asked about his plans, ZS leader Raivis Špons, formerly one of Alksnis's fiercest opponents, told the press that he keeps all options pen: "We won't exclude anybody. Let's see first what Mr. Alksnis can offer us, and then we will see what we can offer him."

Another remarkable change in Latvia's political landscape is the dramatic loss of the Latvian People's Front. Little is left, it seems, of the fame it acquired when it guided Latvia's transformation from a military dictatorship into a democracy in the late eighties - when it had over half a million members - and the early 1990s. LTF leader and poet Maris Straubergs commented: "Perhaps it is time for us to realise that the years for mass movements like ours have past. Latvia is a democracy now, and needs political parties instead of broad popular fronts. We have done our best, and let us be grateful that we have been allowed to contribute positively to Latvia's history. We may not be happy with the result of these elections, but we should not forget that it has been our job to ensure that they could take place in the first place. I just hope that Mr. Alksnis will not turn the clock back." One hour later, Straubergs announced his retirement from politics.

Boris Pugo, the leader of the communist LKSP who spent more than half his life in exile in the CSDS, has mixed feelings about the elections. While he is satisfied with the fact that the LKSP won three seats and is represented by eight deputies now, Pugo is also worried about the future: "Latvia is not ready for communism yet, but that moment will come, I assure you. In the mean time, I just hope I won't have to leave the country again." Asked about his plans for the near future, Pugo replied: "Do you expect me to represent the people, or should I start packing already?"

The Latvian elections were not only a defeat for the government, but also for the polls. During the last few weeks before the elections, they were unanimous in their prognosis, that the elections would be a neck-to-neck race between Talmanis and the right; no one ever guessed the extent of Alksnis's unexpected success.

What explains the sudden popularity of the former tyrant, who ruled Latvia during the years 1987-1989 as Russia's last SNORist vassal? Analysts say that the main cause of the "rightist revolution" is the economy. While Talmanis's restructuring of the Latvian economy has been widely acclaimed by the rest of the world, the population itself has experienced mostly the pains of it in the form of massive unemployment and poverty. As a result, the people got frustrated with its newly acquired freedom, and started to blame the new leaders. Numerous corruption scandals in government circles made it worse for Talmanis, and although his own abilities are beyond any doubt, his reputation of being a womaniser has cost him some support among the more conservative voters too.

Alksnis, on the other hand, knows perfectly well how to mobilise popular discontent. In his junta years he became known for fighting all kinds of corruption within the regime, and now, during the last few months before the elections, he successfully convinced the voters that Latvia's democratically elected but corrupt leaders, supported by foreign powers, should be held responsible for all Latvia's problems. What doubtlessly works in his advantage too is that many people have come to believe that life was better under SNORist rule.

This latter point of view is often accompanied by a reassessment of his role as Latvia's last dictator. When Alksnis assumed the leadership over Latvia's bankrupted regime at the age of 37, he depicted himself as the lesser of many evils. "If we do not do something about the situation now," he reasoned, "people will take up arms and pour into the streets, and this will not be a military coup but a popular coup." In other words, instead of being an ordinary dictator, Alksnis was the hero who had prevented a popular upheaval, that would undoubtedly have been followed by a Russian invasion. Besides, wasn't it Alksnis who had started negotiations with the Latvian Popular Front and allowed several democratic reforms?

Nobody can predict exactly what impact the elections will have on the cooperation within the framework of the Baltic League. Alksnis has repeatedly accused the R.T.C., Scandinavia, and the Baltic League of not keeping their promises and exploiting Latvia instead. "If they won't help us out of our misery, they should not be surprised if we turn our back to them at last," he said. "Instead of concentrating on countries that just follow their own interests, I believe we should focus more on the possibilities of a closer cooperation with Russia."

In a first reaction to the election results, chancellor Jan Sacz [of the RTC, ed.] said that he does not expect Latvia to change its course so drastically: "I think we ought to restrain ourselves from worrying prematurely. Even Alksnis knows the value of our cooperation, and he will think twice before breaking with us. After all, there is a difference between the propaganda you usually hear before an election, and governing a country."

Estonia's prime minister Urmas Piip only said: "Let's just wait and see", and refused any further comments. Only the Bulgarian president Yordan Hristov seemed content with the election result. He sent Alksnis official congratulations and called this "a wonderful day in the history of the friendship between our two peoples".

Later this morning, Talmanis will visit queen Valentina to officially require his dismissal. After the queen has approved his resignation, she will probably put Alksnis in charge of the formation of a new government.

The Composition of the Saeima, after 13.08.2003:

TKK - People's Movement for the Kingdom29(+24)
ZS - Agrarian Union 21(+ 4)
DA - Democratic Alliance 15(-16)
LSDDP - Latvian Social-Democratic Labour Party 10(-11)
LKSP - Latvian Communist Workers' Party 8(+ 3)
LTF - Latvian People's Front 4(- 9)
BRP - Baltic Romuva Party 4(+ 1)
LZP - Latvian Green Party 3( = )
LNP - Latvian National Party 4(+ 4)
KDS - Christian-Democratic Union 2( = )