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Who owns the state? Latvian anti-establishment party aims for power

Through a rhetoric of radical change, issue-oriented politics and a centre-right platform, KPV LV has become one of the main forces in Latvia’s new parliament.

November 13, 2018 - Stefano Arroque - Articles and Commentary

Inaguration of the 13th Saeima. 6th of November 2018 Photo: Ieva Abele

The great news story of the last two years in Europe has undoubtedly been the rise of nationalism and populism to the fore of the continent’s politics. From Italy to Poland, these political forces have won support from voters across the political spectrum, exploiting anti-establishment and often nativist narratives. The latest elections in Latvia, which defined the members of the 13th Saeima (the Latvian legislature) showed both a continuation of and a break with such a phenomenon. While nationalist forces have managed to remain relevant, they did not enjoy the same level of support as in some other countries in Europe. In fact, the biggest election winners this year were new parties who adopted a rhetoric of change and renovation with populist undertones, and pledged to address citizens’ main concerns such as healthcare management, public spending, corruption and the country’s growing demographic deficit.

Although the center-left Harmony party, whose support comes mostly from the Russian-speaking minority and is thus seen as pro-Russian and as an unreliable coalition partner by other political groups, came first and obtained the most seats, its chances of governing are almost nil. The centre-right agrarian Union of Greens and Farmers, the main party in the present coalition, lost almost half its votes, while one of its junior partners, the liberal-conservative New Unity, only managed to retain eight of the 23 seats it presently holds. The National Alliance, represented in Parliament since 2010, ran on a platform that largely coincides with the recent global populist wave; it suffered only minor losses. The governing parties’ losses resulted from a shift towards three newcomers: the New Conservative Party, formed by former Justice Minister and ex-National Alliance member Janis Bordans, the social liberal For Development/PAR, and an anti-establishment party named “Who Owns The State?”, best known for its acronym in Latvian, KPV LV.

Taxpayers’ money and dissatisfied voters

The latest election was, thus, one of the most important in the last decade, bringing to the Saeima a new generation of political parties rising as the present establishment, particularly the centre-right, is in decline. These will have to try to work alongside the existing parties that have retained their electoral bases. In this sense, KPV LV’s growing popularity is the main news story. The party’s campaigning style is rather unique in the politics of the Baltic states. KPV LV’s rhetoric has many populist traits. It is strongly focused on Mr. Kaimins’ personality, and while it presents itself as heralding a radical departure from the status quo, it is very much a part of Latvia’s centre-right tradition. Its modus operandi consists of campaigning on specific issues rather than a broad platform, such as reducing the size of public administration, lowering taxes and optimising the use of taxpayer money, and solving Latvia’s severe demographic problem. Many of these proposals are in line with mainstream contemporary centre-right politics in Europe.

“[KPV LV’s] ideology is fiscal conservatism and taxpayers’ rights”, said Aldis Blumbergs, one of the 16 KPV LV members elected to the Saeima. Blumbergs says his party takes inspiration from European political movements that cater to the needs and demands of young people. In true populist fashion, KPV LV has chosen a name that is both the guiding question that led to the party’s founding and a rallying cry for those unsatisfied with the way public money is spent and the present direction of Latvian politics. Similar in style (though not in policy) to Italy’s Five Star Movement, the party has altered the power dynamics in the country, and whether it joins the governing coalition or remains in opposition, it will be a force to be reckoned with for at least the next five years.

A successful campaign strategy

While it was not the only new party to join the 13th Saeima, KPV LV is worthy of special attention precisely because of its peculiar style and worldview, which could potentially be emulated in the other Baltic countries. Two important points ought to be taken into consideration. The first one concerns KPV LV’s anti-establishment rhetoric. While this is undoubtedly key to explaining KPV LV’s electoral success, the presence of a well-defined political project, with ideas that address most important issues, demonstrates a programmatic complexity rarely found in protest or single-issue parties. The party presents itself as outside the mainstream – and willing to denounce it – but still plays by the rules. Such a position allows it to present itself as an attractive option to both anti-establishment voters and dissatisfied centrists. The second point regards KPV LV’s strategy of campaigning strongly with Latvian diaspora communities across Europe and beyond. By campaigning in diaspora communities, especially in the two largest Latvian communities in Europe, the UK and Ireland, and establishing party chapters in these countries, KPV LV won 35 per cent of the diaspora vote – over 20 per cent more than the runner-up. The existence of large diaspora communities is, in fact, a common phenomenon to all three Baltic countries, a significant part of which consists of young people – a key KPV LV demographic.

The negotiations ahead

If the party becomes a part of the governing coalition, as Kaimins and the party’s Prime-Minister candidate Aldis Gobzems hope, it is likely to wield considerable influence in government. Mr. Bordans has taken a leading role in coalition-building efforts, and he is seen as one of the most likely to occupy the post of prime minister since making peace with the National Alliance, with whom his party had been locked in a political feud. He has received a mandate to form a government from President Raimonds Vejonis at the beginning of the month, and has vowed to form a government in a short period. His preferred scenario is a grand coalition including all but Harmony and the Greens and Farmers. In any such coalition, KPV LV and the New Conservative Party would remain the most powerful members.

Efforts to build a five-party coalition might be complicated by the significant policy divergences that exist between the potential coalition members. On many social issues, the New Conservatives and the National Alliance are further to the right than New Unity and PAR, with KPV LV standing between them. In foreign and European policy, important subjects in Latvian politics, PAR is much more supportive of European federalism than the other parties, which tend to support the idea of a union of nation states – notwithstanding the rhetorical difference between New Unity and the New Conservatives at one end and the National Alliance at the other. Regarding KPV LV’s position, Mr. Blumbergs stressed the party’s support for stronger cooperation with NATO and the EU in protecting the bloc’s external border – an idea shared by all potential partners. On Latvia’s relationship with the European Union he said that “the current government course is supported”.

A new political model?

Regardless of the negotiations’ outcome, it is evident that the 13th Saeima’s new formation is the result of a deep dissatisfaction with the political establishment that is part of a worldwide trend, with nuances that are unique to each country that is affected. In Latvia, it has resulted neither in right-wing nationalism nor in left-wing economic populism. Instead, it has favoured the rise of non-extremist parties with strong anti-corruption or anti-establishment platforms. KPV LV’s campaign strategy of populist-style rhetoric, issue-oriented politics, a centre-right platform and willingness to negotiate with other parties has been a very successful one. The party’s efforts to attract diaspora voters and to establish a presence in Latvian communities abroad are also worthy of mention.

Political trends in the Baltic countries are rarely limited to a single country, as many examples throughout modern history have shown. In Lithuania, and especially in Estonia, conditions for a similar parliamentary shakeup are rife. Estonian voters will head to the polls next March, with a far-right nationalist party set to win up to 20 per cent of the vote, riding the wave of anti-establishment sentiments and the breakup of the traditional centre-right. Whether or not there will be any attempts to replicate KPV LV’s methods and electoral success in any of the two countries, and whether the Latvian party will pass the crucial test of being part of government whilst retaining anti-establishment credentials remains to be seen. In any case, for the next few years, all eyes in the Baltics will be on Riga.

Stefano Arroque is from Porto Alegre, Brazil. He holds a Bachelors Degree in International Relations from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). His research focuses on Central Europe and Italy.

For more on Latvia, listen to the first episode of “Talk Eastern Europe”.

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