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Latvia Is Being Governed

Laimdota Straujuma, until now the 62-year-old former minister of agriculture, has stood at the head of the difficult five-party coalition. She is an intelligent, trustworthy civil servant and good economist.

February 3, 2014 - Tomasz Otocki - Articles and Commentary

03.02.2014 latvia

Photo: Saeima (cc) commons.wikimedia.org

Latvian voters know little about Laimdota Straujuma, just as Polish voters knew little about Hanna Suchocka in 1992. Those who have a regular interest in Latvian politics know her from the battles for the EU budget for 2014-2020 and equal subsidies directly to farmers (Latvian farmers receive very little from EU funds; Straujuma and Dombrovskis tried to change this). For the majority, she was just another anonymous person and much suggests that because of this reason President Andris Bērziņš gave her the responsibility of forming a new cabinet.

The previous head of state rejected several candidacies from the Unity ruling party, including that of the very well-recognised and experienced politician Artis Pabriks, who in 2010-2014 was the minister of defence in the Dombrovskis government. Many commentators suggested that the president chose the weakest candidate so that he could himself control the government from the backseat.

A Five-Party Coalition

The global media quickly noticed that Straujuma will be the first woman heading the government in Riga. For Latvia, a woman at a high-ranking state function is nothing new, however: from 1999 to 2007, the country’s president was Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga; meanwhile, Solvita Āboltiņa was the third speaker of the Parliament, and she also holds the important function of chief of the largest right-wing party in the country. Such women as Sandra Kalniete, Inguna Sudraba, Tatiana Żdanok and Linda Abu Meri have successfully made their place in the Latvian political scene. Also in connection to this fact, Āboltiņa has oftentimes rejected the idea of electoral gender quotas (after 50 years of Soviet rule, the Latvians are more sensitive towards libertarian ideals than the Poles).

Cooperation within the new government may be difficult: how can the ambitions of the conservative-liberals of Vienotība be compatible with those of the nationalists from NA VL! – TB/LNNK, the oligarchs from the Union of Greens and Farmers or the activists of the Reform Party, which now enjoys marginal support of 0.5 per cent?

There remain many contentious matters, including the adoption of the common EU currency, the conflict between the liberals and the socialists and the relations with the oligarchs. For example, although last year Edmunds Sprūdžs from the Reform Party tried to deprive Ventspils Aivars Lembergs of the function of mayor, for the activists of the Union of Greens and Farmers Lembergs is an unofficial patron and sponsor. Many commentators last year feared that because of Lembergs President Andris Bērziņš inclined Valdis Dombrovskis to an unjustified resignation.

In the additional fifth grouping, a group of five independent deputies led by Klāvs Olšteins was added. Paradoxically, the government could be a lot more coherent than the 2011-2013 coalition: elections are coming soon, and nobody wants to appear to be politically quarrelsome.

Many politicians from the cabinet of Valdis Dombrovskis remained in Straujuma’s government; we can, in fact, speak about a sort of continuation of his line until the next elections. Straujuma herself admits that she will only be a technocratic premier until the elections. In her government she left people such as Edgars Rinkēvičs (a well-regarded reformer responsible for foreign affairs), Adris Vilks (the minister of finance thanks to whom Latvia has successfully joined the euro zone) and Ingrīda Circene (who for many years was blamed for health care-related problems). The politician Artis Pabriks disappeared from the government; he will in May 2014 be a candidate to the European Parliament. Meanwhile, Raimonds Vējonis appeared again, this time in the role of the head of the Ministry of Defence (many commentators are asking if this specialist in the field of environmental protection will succeed in the new function).

The Dark Horse

The government received a vote of confidence at a special session of the Saeima on January 22th with a comfortable majority of 64 votes. There was almost a scandal because the designated premier decided to not include the reformer and Minister of the Economy Daniels Pavļuts in the new cabinet. The official reason was blaming him for the supermarket catastrophe in Zolitūde. Unofficially, however, it has been said that Pavļuts stood in the way of the business interests of Vienotība and the son of Straujuma. The reformers threatened that if Pavļuts is kicked out they will not support the government. Ultimately, however, the capitulated and supported the new cabinet.

Similar battles were fought in the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development. The centre-right did not want to give it to the Union of Greens and Farmers (read: to Lembergs) because huge money from EU funds go through this ministry. This time the head of government won, and Mayor Ventspils had to accept the new deal. However, Liepāja is content with the new cabinet because Straujuma promised to solve the problems of the Liepājas Metalurgs company.

Latvian political scientists accordingly claim that the government of Straujuma will indeed be transitional, and its aim will be to safely lead the country to the October parliamentary elections. Whether Straujuma will gain the confidence of voters and allow Unity to get a good electoral result remains to be seen.

A lot suggests that in its fourth year Vienotība will run out of steam. It is uncertain whether this will help Valdis Dombrovskis, who until recently was prime minister, in his candidacy for chief of the European Commission. Although Vienotība is losing in the polls, the ex-premier is still the most popular politician among Latvian-language voters. As a result, everyone is waiting to see what Dombrovskis will do.

The new prime minister, however, can show the “political lion’s claw” and surprise many. After all, Suchocka also started her political career from the lower rungs of the Democratic Union (Unia Demokratyczna, UD) party, yet in the 1993 parliamentary elections she had the most votes among all of the UD’s candidates.

Translated by Filip Mazurczak

This text originally appeared in Nowa Europa Wschodnia

Tomasz Otocki studied international relations and Eastern studies. Since 2010, he has worked with the Baltic Section of Radio Wnet and since March 2012 with the largest Polish information portal in Lithuania pl.delfi.ly. Since August 2013 has been cooperating with portal Znad Wilii. He also published in paper media, including: Znad Wilii (quarterly) and Echa Polesia.

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