Latvian election tips for foreign correspondents

Take note – story published 1 year and 8 months ago

It's election time in Latvia, which brings with it a lot of additional attention from the international media.

While a few international media outlets retain a local presence in Latvia, most do not, and Latvian election coverage is sometimes handed to reporters who may not be overly familiar with the whys and wherefores of Latvian politics, or who usually cover Russia, with the Baltic states cast into their laps as a little bonus package. This can lead to some unfortunate gaffes and election headlines that leave locals scratching their heads.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for our journalistic colleagues to bear in mind in order to avoid irate calls from their editors and/or Latvian officials. 

1) Coming first is not necessarily 'winning' the election

Editors always pile on the pressure to be the first saying who has 'won' the election. But often in Latvia, topping the poll doesn't even guarantee that you will be in government. The most obvious example is the Harmony (Saskaņa) party which 'won' the elections in 2011, 2014 and 2018 but has never been part of a governing coalition, let alone led one. This is not a two- or three-party system. With so many parties in the mix it would be unprecedented for a single party to completely dominate and dictate the shape of the next government.

2) The Prime Minister will not necessarily come from the largest party

After the election it is up to the State President to nominate a potential Prime Minister. As with the example above, this does not automatically have to be from the largest party. It will be someone the President believes has a reasonable chance of assembling a workable coalition in the national interest. The President has a considerable degree of personal discretion in this respect – he or she can even nominate someone who has no chance, just to show that they have no chance and move negotiations on to a more realistic stage. At the last Saeima elections, several candidates from larger parties were unable to assemble workable coalitions and in the end it was Krišjanis Kariņš – from the smallest party in Saeima at the time – who wound up as PM. 

3) The Greens are not necessarily all that 'green'

When Indulis Emsis became Prime Minister in 2004, international news media went big on him being the first 'green' PM of the country, and similarly when Raimonds Vējonis became President in 2015 he was dubbed Europe's first 'green' head of state. The Latvian Green Party they represented was part of the wider Greens and Farmers Alliance (ZZS) political bloc, but ZZS has never really been like the left-wing ecological 'green' parties of Western and Southern Europe, being more of a conservative agrarian party that was a partial inheritor of Kārlis Ulmanis' 'Latvian Farmers Union'.

Indeed, in 2019 the Latvian Green Party was expelled from the European Green Party.

Things are even more complicated this time around. The Greens and Farmers Union is running in the election under that name, but minus the Latvian Green Party which is now teamed up with the United List, an alliance of regional and business-oriented parties. Quite how many traditional ZZS voters are aware of this new order of things is one of the big questions of this election.

4) The Social Democrats are not necessarily all that 'social democratic'

The Harmony party styles itself as "social democratic" in ideology, and at European level is part of the Party of European Socialists. But until 2017 – well after the illegal occupation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 – it had ties to Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. Furthermore, its position on social policy is often considerably more conservative than most social democrats would expect. For example, it has not supported attempts to establish a same-sex civil partnership law and some of its members voted against Latvia ratifying the Istanbul Convention.

5) The Nationalists are not necessarily 'far right'

The main nationalist political grouping, the National Alliance, is sometimes referred to as a 'far right' party in international news reports. This is perhaps a little unfair. Though it does have some members who might merit that description, it is a fairly broad church. While it is certainly right-of-center and unashamedly nationalist in character, some of its more prominent members such as Vice-President of the European Parliament Roberts Zīle, Culture Minister Nauris Puntulis or Chairman of the Saeima Foreign Affairs Committee Rihards Kols have more in common with conventional conservative parties than with far-right ones, and many of the National Alliance's economic policies owe more to Keynes than Friedman.

6) Latvian Russians are not necessarily living in a mental Russia

Current events, plus the international media's longtime fascination with all things Russian sometimes makes it seem like Latvian elections are events in the Russian political landscape. They are not. It would be a bit like saying Canada's political direction depends entirely on what is happening in the United States. It might be a factor, but it's definitely not the defining one. Around one quarter of Latvia's population is ethnically Russian. If they are Latvian citizens, they are part of the Latvian political landscape, not the Russian one. If they are not Latvian citizens, it might be argued they are part of the Russian political landscape – but in that case they don't have a vote in Latvian elections anyway so their political stance is irrelevant as far as voting results are concerned.

7) Please don't say 'former Soviet state' 

Nothing gets Latvians' (and Estonians' and Lithuanians') backs up like reading that Latvia is a "former Soviet state" that "broke away from Moscow" in the 1990s. Latvia came into existence as a independent state in 1918. From 1940 it was under occupation, briefly by Nazi Germany and thereafter by the Soviet Union. The mechanism by which the Soviets tried to legitimise their occupation? Bogus votes at gunpoint with foregone conclusions. Does this ring any bells?

In any case, Latvia and the other democracies of Eastern Europe have now spent more than 30 years out of the Soviet grip. So please give us a break and stop talking as if we've just scrambled over the Berlin Wall and speak with a Hollywood Slavic accent.

8) Taxi drivers don't know everything

We all know it's tempting to use the taxi ride from the airport to your hotel to get the authentic vox populi by interviewing your taxi driver for the real lowdown on the election. After all, he speaks good English, is more than happy to talk and you can copy down his name accurately from his license. But it's just possible he doesn't represent the majority view, unlike the cabbies of New York or London. However, if you do use his quotes, you should have the class to at least give him a very generous tip for his expert election anaysis. After all, you can claim it back on expenses. 

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