A pro-Russia party could emerge big winner in Latvia‘s snap election on Saturday, a historic watershed in a small country firmly integrated with the west and where much of the population is still distrustful of Russia, which effectively ruled it during the Soviet and tsarist eras.
In the past 20 years since Latvian independence no party catering to ethnic Russians – who make up approximately one-third of Latvia’s 2.2 million people – has had a role in national government.
Polls show that the leftist Harmony Centre, which now controls 29 opposition seats in the 100-member parliament, is likely to gain at least that many if not more, in the next legislature, improving its chances of taking part in a ruling coalition. “Getting Harmony into government is extremely important,” said the party’s co-leader, Nils Usakovs, who wants to show that ethnic Russians can be trusted to help run Latvia. History lies at the heart of Harmony’s difficulties.
Harmony Centre politicians refuse to acknowledge that Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union for a half-century after the second world war. Usakovs has admitted that the Baltic states – Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania – were “illegally incorporated,” which is a step short of occupation.
To circumvent the delicate subject, Usakovs has proposed a three-year ban on discussing history – or until the next general election in 2014. Prime minister Dombrovskis, however, has rejected the idea and insisted that Harmony recognize Latvia’s occupation before it can enter government.
Usakovs, 34, is regarded a political trailblazer since two years ago he became the first ethnic Russian mayor of Riga, Latvia’s capital and largest city. Now he wants to take the municipal experience to the national level.
“Even if Harmony Centre ministers fail, or I fail, we will nevertheless be the first to break the stereotype” of Russians barred from holding top government posts, he told The Associated Press. “Probably we will fail. But the next time there are Russian-speaking, left-minded ministers, it will be easier for them.”
Saturday’s vote is extraordinary, coming less than one year after a scheduled election that was regarded as a show of support for the current leadership, which has struggled to rescue Latvia from deep recession.
In May then President Valdis Zatlers dissolved parliament after lawmakers interfered with a major probe into high-level corruption – a decision that was subsequently backed by 94% of voters in a July referendum, setting the stage for Saturday’s ballot.
Lawmakers punished Zatlers by refusing to re-elect him in June, choosing challenger Andris Berzins instead. But by then Zatlers had given Harmony Centre a golden opportunity to tap popular resentment and claim an unprecedented electoral victory this weekend.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high – 16.2%, according to Eurostat – and tens of thousands of people have left the country to find jobs elsewhere.
A recent poll conducted by Latvijas Fakti for the Baltic News Service shows that nearly 21% of voters are prepared to cast their ballots for Harmony Center, nearly seven percentage points ahead of second-place Unity, the main force in the current ruling coalition. The poll was conducted between 8-9 September and included 1,001 respondents.
But the poll also showed there is a huge swathe of undecided voters – 28.6% – and these tend to be ethnic Latvians, said Toms Rostoks, who teaches political science at the University of Latvia.
“The undecideds are trying to figure out who stands for what. Nearly every day there is a debate between prime minister candidates, so voters are watching and trying to learn something more” before making up their minds, he said.
The ethnic Latvian vote will largely split among four parties: Unity, represented by Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, Zatlers’ Reform party – the only new party with a chance of gaining seats – the populist Greens and Farmers Union and the right-wing National Alliance.
Zatlers’ Reform party had a 11.4% show of support in the Latvijas Fakti poll, while the populists had 8.4% and the nationalists 6.9%.
Unity and the Reformists agree on most issues, and together they are likely to determine whether Harmony will be invited to the next government.
But a key element to Harmony Centre’s success is whether it can attract ethnic Latvians, and this is where Usakovs – who nearly died in May after collapsing from heat exhaustion during a half-marathon in Riga – comes in.
“Usakovs is very acceptable for some Latvian voters. He is young, good-looking individual who is perfectly fluent in Latvian,” said Rostoks.