The Coalition Talks: A guide to week one

With contributions by Otto Tabuns, visiting lecturer at Rīga Graduate School of Law

Flag of the Prime Minister of Latvia
With just over a week having passed since the conclusion to a thrilling, unpredictable election which saw seven different parties elected to the 100-seat Saeima (parliament), the three parties of the previous governing coalition become the three smallest factions, and three completely new parties gain more than 10 seats each, we are not much closer to having a new cabinet of ministers than we were when the result totals were first finalized. As most predicted, the negotiations between parties required to form a new government have been quite contentious, and are likely to become more so as they continue into a second week. If you are new to Latvia's politics, you might want to check out our primer on the election and all of the parties, our analysis of the election results, and our guide to the prime ministerial candidates first. Otherwise, here's our day-by-day recap of the most major happenings from the process so far:

Monday (October 8th):

The coalition talks kicked off at the beginning of the week with a major meeting between KPV LV prime ministerial candidate Aldis Gobzems and JKP candidate Jānis Bordāns, both of which will have 16 seats each in the next Saeima. Aside from saying that "common points" were agreed upon, not much else was revealed about the meeting by either party present. The fact that the two met on Monday was significant, however, in the fact that it sets the tone for which factions will be the most significant in the coalition crafting process.

Tuesday (October 9th):

In an early morning interview with Latvijas Radio 1, Gobzems re-emphasized his claim that he was a "serious candidate" for the job of prime minister despite some observers believing that he his not actually interested in serving in the role. A second meeting later that day between Gobzems and Bordāns failed to reach an agreement to create the "nucleus" of a new coalition that would share power between the two largest non-Saskaņa factions in parliament, but did not rule the possibility out either. Bordāns also briefly met with Attīstībai/Par! representative Daniels Pavļut later in the day, although not much was announced regarding those talks. 

Wednesday (October 10th):

After a just 20-minute closed-door meeting between Jānis Bordāns and Armands Krauze (chairman of the sixth place Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība (ZZS), Bordāns announced in no uncertain terms that ZZS would not be included in his proposal for a new coalition. Krauze then countered that ZZS members would vote against any cabinet plan drawn up by Bordāns and JKP. Although Bordāns had previously hinted that he would rather ZZS not participate in the next government, its a bit surprising that this kind of red line was drawn just three days into what is expected to be a prolonged negotiation process. However, Bordāns was apparantly able to bury the hatchet with the Nacionālā apvienība party which he was kicked out of in 2014 in a morning meeting with party reperesentative Raivis Dzintars.

Meanwhile, President Raimonds Vējonis, who is responsible for nominating the next prime minister after candidates have presented their proposals for a coalition, re-stated his requirements that the new head of government be committed to the current process of political reform and continuing the country's pro-NATO and pro-Europe foreign policy, and also must be worthy of security clearance.

Thursday (October 11th):

People who weren't convinced by KPV leaders Aldis Gobzems' and Artuss Kaimiņš' last-minute promises not to work with Saskaņa after the election were given new reasons to lose sleep when the leaders announced that they would make good on their pre-election promise to "consult with all parties" including the traditionally Kremlin-friendly one that will have the most overall seats in the next Saeima. Gobzems and Kaimiņš have argued that this planned meeting is part of the party's democratic responsibility, 

Friday (October 12th):

Jānis Bordāns announced a proposal for a new coalition that made good on his promise to leave out ZZS from governing. The plan is as follows:

JKP: Prime Minister, Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional Development, Minister of the Interior
KPV LV: Minister of the Economy, Minister of Transportation
"Attīstībai/Par!": Minister of Finance, Minister of Welfare, Minister of Health
Nacionālā apvienība: Minister of Culture, Minister of Education and Science, Minister of Agriculture
Jaunā Vienotība: Minister of Justice, Minister of Defense

This would include every party from the next Saeima aside from ZZS and Saskaņa, and would give the government a solid 66 seats in parliament. However, leaders from other parties almost immediately expressed skepticism that such an arrangement would be workable. Atīstībai/Par! prime minister candidate Artis Pabriks and Nacionālā apvienība leader Raivis Dzintars announced after their closed door discussion on the same day that they would prefer a government that includes current coalition member ZZS, and Jaunā Vienotība prime ministerial candidate Krišjānis Kariņš went so far as to say that based on his experience, the arrangement would not probably work. KPV LV leadership held a party meeting later that night in which it was announced that Bordāns' proposal was sent via email in a very "non-governmental" fashion. While no official reaction was announced by party leadership, prime ministerial candidate Aldis Gobzems stated that night that he ran for election not to serve in an official position but to serve the people of Latvia, hinting that he might be open to sitting out of the next government complete rather than compromising on KPV LV's principles. Its worth pointing out that while LTV announced earlier in the say that KPV LV would have held the foreign ministry under Bordāns' plan, a tweet from JKP that the foreign ministry hadn't been decided upon yet, and under his proposal the position would be decided upon collectively.

Main takeaways::

This was Jānis Bordāns' week in the spotlight, but it seems like the contentious former minister of justice might have overplayed his hand too early in the game. None of his potential partners seem the least bit enthusiastic about the potential arrangement he announced on Friday or the way he has conducted himself so far in these talks. Its difficult to imagine that second place in vote totals KPV LV would be satisfied holding only two of the ministries in an arrangement which would likely leave them marginalized with so many other partners and hamstrung in achieving the radical reforms promised to their voters. Meanwhile, Attīstībai/Par!'s and Nacionāla apvienība's statement regarding ZZS is a strong statement they they favor something closer to a continuation of the status quo rather than the kind of major shake-up that KPV LV and JKP called for throughout the campaign.

Power rankings:

Just for fun, Otto and I have put together our own "power rankings" of the candidates (and other options) in terms of how "strong" an option they are after the first week of negotiations. Unless a government has been confirmed by the end of next week (an extremely unlikely scenario) we will update these based on the events that will have transpired over the course of the next seven days.
  1. Janis Bordāns (Jaunā konservatīvā partija): Although the first week looked quite messy for Bordāns (at least to outside observers), the JKP leader still holds the strongest hand at the table with a sound electoral mandate, 16 seats in parliament, and likely enough pro-west credentials to satisfy President Vējonis. It's difficult to tell whether his actions over the past week have been opening tactics as part of a grander negotiating strategy or just simply bad negotiating, and the next week will likely decide his chances of becoming Latvia's next leader.
  2. Artis Pabriks (Attīstībai/Par!): Pabriks has remained mostly quiet over the past week aside from his major announcement together with Nacionālā apvienība on Friday that they would prefer to keep ZZS in the next coalition. As a much-discussed "compromise candidate," he more or less needs to wait and see how the other leaders formally respond to Bordāns' proposal before making any of his own major moves. However, his publicly expressed willingness to seriously consider including ZZS in government could diminish his chances of being seen as an acceptable compromise for either KPV LV or JKP should Bordāns fail to get a deal done.
  3. Aldis Gobzems (KPV LV): While many members of the other parties and President Vējonis himself are likely nervous about the idea of handing over the prime ministership to the fiery populist Gobzems, he has taken a much more conciliatory tone towards the other parties since Saturday's vote, and with a strong electoral mandate and less dramatically announced "red lines" than Bordāns still has a strong position at the negotiating table. Aside from the question of whether other parties would accept his leadership of the country, its still not entirely clear whether he actually wants to step into the role at the time being or bide his time for a more opportune moment in the near future.
  4. Krišjānis Kariņš (Jaunā Vienotība): Despite Jaunā Vienotība being virtually written off as a viable political force by many commentators (including this one) during the party's polling nadir in the middle of the summer, their relatively centrist politics and distance from the more major scandals that damaged ZZS' stock over the course of the past few years has put the party in the surprising position of possibly retaking the prime ministership less than three years after the dramatic collapse of Vienotība party leader Laimdota Straujuma's government due to a mutiny led by other Vienotība party leader (and current ambassador to Italy) Solvita Aboltiņa. Kariņš has increasingly been discussed as a possible compromise candidate that could be acceptable to the other parties, and while former Vienotība member Pabriks likely still has a better chance of serving in this role, it's no longer unthinkable to think that Kariņš might be leading the government by the end of next month.
  5. An outside compromise candidate: A possibility still remains that in the case of prolonged deadlock, the parties could agree on an outsider to serve as a "compromise" prime minister, as was the case with future oligarch Andris Šķēle in 1995. The question of who would be able (or willing) to do so is not one that there is any obvious answer to however, but we will likely begin to hear some proposals the longer that talks go on without any significant breakthrough.
  6. Roberts Zīle (Nacionālā apvienība): Why did we rank actual candidate Zīle below a theoretical candidate that no one has even imagined yet? While Zīle theoretically could be asked to serve as a compromise prime minister, he has shown little evidence of ambition for the job either in this election or any of the others that he has led his party in. His willingness might depend on how likely he believes his chances are at being re-elected to European parliament this May, a post he has served since Latvia's ascension to the union in 2004. Furthermore, Nacionālā apvienība will likely be satisfied by holding the culture ministry and taking over the education ministry (as proposed by Bordāns), as they will want to see through the controversial transition to Latvian language-only secondary education that will begin to be implemented during the next government's term.
  7. Māris Kučinskis (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība): In theory it is possible that Kučinskis keeps his job in the name of "stability" (as Nacionālā apvienība and Attīstībai/Par! leadership have identified as a priority), but this would only conceivably happen if all of the above-mentioned options failed. It's a positive sign for his chances that other parties have signaled a desire for ZZS to remain a partner in the next coalition, but its unlikely that this would extend to the premiership.
  8. Early elections: If things really go badly and the discussions sour to the point of the different parties being unable to reconcile enough to form even a sketchy minority government, the only option left would likely be to hold another set of elections. This would probably only happen after months of deadlock, as it's unlikely that most of the parties (or Latvia's voters) would have much appetite for another intense campaign so soon after the previous one finished.
  9. Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis (Saskaņa): Aside from an unthinkable mass defection of Saeima members from non-Saskaņa parties, there's almost no conceivable way that Dombrovskis would be able to find partners willing to put him into the prime ministership. Despite KPV LV's much discussed planned meeting with Saskaņa, no other party has shown any evidence of a willingness to budge from their "red line" position against the traditionally Kremlin-friendly party. 
That's all for now. Check back next week for our updated power rankings of the candidates as well as the latest news regarding the discussions. Also, make sure to "like" us on Facebook for important top "stories of the day" each evening, and press "subscribe" at the top of this page for more of these guides to different Latvian issues as well as weekly news analyses.