Major takeaways from the 13th Saeima's first work week

The Saeima building in Rīga
Photo Credit: Saeima, via Wikipedia Commons
While most of the world had its eyes focused on the conclusion to a critical "mid-term" election in the United States, the last week here in Latvia has been just as politically eventful relative to the country's tiny size. As those of you following this blog have noticed, the last month had been marked mostly by gridlock punctuated by brief, fleeting moments of seeming breakthrough in the excruciating process of forming a new coalition after seven parties were elected to the new parliament with six of them gaining less than 20 seats each. In fact, so little happened the week before that Otto and I didn't even bother making a day-by-day guide to developments as we had for the first four weeks — we wouldn't have wanted to put you through reading something that boring.

However, that all changed this week when the 13th Saeima met for the first time on Tuesday. Since then, there has been a flurry of activity and controversy with surprise announcements coming at a breakneck pace over the last few days. Instead of going day-by-day with what happened as I had originally planned, I'm instead going to focus on the biggest and most important takeaways and what they mean for how things happen next. Strap yourselves in, because it's been heck of a ride.

Jānis Bordāns was nominated by President Raimonds Vējonis to become the next Prime Minister of Latvia

Image Credit: Saeima, via Wikimedia Commons
On paper, this doesn't look so surprising for people who have been following Latvian politics with only a cursory glance over the last few weeks. After all, his Jaunā konservatīvā partija (JKP) tied for second place with 16 seats in the new Saeima, just behind the traditionally Kremlin-friendly Saskaņa party which has been the largest party in parliament since 2010 but has as much of a chance of convincing other parties to work with them as the Buffalo Bills do of winning the Super Bowl this yearKPV LV also won 16 seats, but their harsh election rhetoric led many observers to believe that they had little to no chance of actually leading a coalition as other parties would be skeptical of working with them. With JKP as the other largest so-called "Latvian party," why wouldn't their prime minister candidate be the logical choice to form the new government?

The answer: everything that has happened since the October 6th election. Jānis Bordāns' performance in the coalition negotiation has been widely criticized both by political analysts and by other parties, beginning with his dramatic promise three days after the election not to work in a coalition with Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība (ZZS) after a just 30-minute meeting with party leader Armunds Krauze over the objections of potential partners Attīstībai/Par!Jaunā Vienotība, and Nacionālā apvienība. Other points of contention include what was seen as a rushed roll-out of his planned division of ministries posts that potential partners complained should have come after a mutually agreed agenda of policy goals, and a flat-out refusal to take part in discussion groups led by Attīstībai/Par! since ZZS participated as well. When parties expressed their skepticism at JKP's offerings, Bordāns began saying within days that his party was prepared to sit in "responsible opposition" and stay out of the governing coalition altogether. In fact, Bordāns could be heard on Latvijas Radio criticizing the "re-emergence of the old coalition" and lamenting the difficulty that JKP would have cooperating with other parties just hours before being chosen by the president to form a government.

What this means: If Bordāns is able to herd cats and form a new government before the November 21st deadline imposed by the president, he will become the 23rd prime minister in the republic's history. However, given the fractured nature of this Saeima and the contentious relationship between parties that somehow managed to get even worse following President Vējonis' decision, its likely that the next coalition will not be built to last. History isn't on Bordāns' side either — since the establishment of the four-year regular election cycle in 1998, prime ministers have lasted an average of 461 days from being confirmed following an election until either resigning or until early elections have been called. Some analysts have even gone so far as to predict that Bordāns is being set up as a "sacrifice" who's already expected to fail, the whispers of which the candidate himself has seemingly acknowledged. Otto also sees the possibility of President Vējonis not wanting to damage his re-election prospects by snubbing Bordāns and almost certainly ruling out JKP's potential support, although the party hasn't so far made any statements about whether they would like Vējonis to continue for a second term.

KPV LV have returned to their brash pre-election form... or have they?

Saeima Deputy Aldis Gobzems
Image Source; KPV LV promotional photo
One of the biggest surprises in the weeks following the election was the seeming about-face of KPV LV prime minister candidate Aldis Gobzems when it came to rhetoric. During the election the party harshly and personally attacked political opponents and journalists alike, a strategy that proved popular with their voters but left many observers wondering if they would be able to (or even wanted to) become a viable post-election political force after seemingly burning so many bridges. Nearly immediately after though, Gobzems adopted a far softer and more conciliatory tone while Bordāns surprised analysts by behaving the way that KPV LV leadership were expected to. Observers were left wondering; was this a true change of tack by the party, or just a temporary "charm offensive" to maximize their chances of taking the premiership?

Gobzems seemed to have all but confirmed the latter theory just minutes after President Vējonis' announcement by taking time in the post-decision press conference to announce that KPV LV would in no circumstance participate in a government lead by Artis Pabriks and Attīstībai/Par!, linking him with oligarch Andris Šķēle and questioning his commitment to the ending country's corruption-plagued green energy subsidy, or fighting "fast credit" and gambling. Pabriks shot back immediately afterwards, saying that it could be difficult to form a harmonious government when a potential major partner resorts to slander just minutes after a prime minister is nominated.

What this means: Nobody was seriously expecting election-mode KPV LV to completely disappear, but Gobzems' timing of his barb at Pabriks is certainly interesting. It's difficult to say whether his objection to Attīstībai/Par!'s leader was voiced previously to the president and influenced Vējonis' choice of Bordāns or whether he waited for the prospect of a Pabriks-led government to disappear before voicing this kind of attack that gained KPV LV its voter base in the first place. If both Pabriks and Gobzems end up as ministers as Bordāns has offered, this could certainly end 

Ināra Mūrniece was re-elected to her job as Speaker of Saeima by mostly the previous government's coalition

Speaker of Saeima Ināra Mūrniece
After a 44-32 vote on Tuesday afternoon, Nacionālā apvienība deputy and former Latvijas Avīze journalist Ināra Mūrniece was chosen to retain her job as speaker of Saeima. All 16 members from both Jaunā konservatīvā partija and KPV LV voted for the conservatives' Dagmāra Beitnere-Le Galla, while all members from Attīstībai/Par!Nacionālā apvienībaZaļo un Zemnieku savienība, and Jaunā Vienotība (aside from one member each from Nacionālā apvienība and Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība) voted for Mūrniece. The Saskaņa party's 22 remaining members as well as newly independent member Jūlija Stepaņenko abstained from voting.

What this means: It's worth noting that the parties which voted for Mūrniece were all of the ones that took part in discussion groups led by Attīstībai/Par! in the weeks following the election, those other three parties being the members of the outgoing governing coalition. Otto would also like to point out that if Saskaņa had chosen to, they could have voted against Mūrniece's confirmation instead of simply abstaining altogether and prevented her from being re-elected. Whether this indicates some sort of shadowy backroom agreement between Nacionālā apvienība and Saskaņa is the matter of pure speculation, but Otto doesn't see it as out of the question given their previous collaboration on a number of votes.

Every party aside from ZZS and KPV LV is represented in the new Saeima's presidium

KPV LV deputy Artuss Kaimiņš
Photo Credit: Saeima, via Wikimedia Commons
The rest of Saeima's top positions were decided throughout later Tuesday afternoon, with Jaunā konservatīvā partija's Dagmāra Beitnere-Le Galla being chosen as one of the deputy speakers over Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība's Gunārs Daudze in a 65-34 vote and Inese Lībiņa-Egnere from Jaunā Vienotība as the other over KPV LV's Artuss Kaimiņš in a 65-31 vote. Saskaņa's Andrejs Klementjevs was confirmed as secretary with 55 votes for (in the lowest margin of victory of the day) while Marija Golubeva from Attīstībai/Par! was confirmed as his deputy with 63 votes for. That means that all parties aside from KPV LV and Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība are represented in Saeima's top positions. KPV LV deputy Artuss Kaimiņš immediately complained that his party was punished by its support of Dagmāra Beitnere-Le Galla for the speakership, but Andrejs Judins from Jauna Vienotība calimed that it was Lībiņa-Egnere's greater experience as well as Kaimiņš' behavior as a deputy in the previous Saeima that influenced people's decision.

What this means: Either not very much or quite a bit, depending on how you look at it. In the case of ZZS, it's easy to read too much into the fact that they're going from being the party of both the president and the prime minister to very possibly not being represented in either the next government or the presidium in the course of just one election. They were certainly punished by voters this election, but they were probably a far more toxic brand after the snap 2011 election, coming back just a few years later to retake the prime ministership for the first time in ten years. We have noted before how parties have short life spans and come and go frequently, but its constituent parts are more or less eternal in the land of Latvian politics. Latvijas Zaļā partija dates back to January 1990, months before the election that led to the re-establishment of Latvian independence, and Latvijas Zemnieku savienība goes all the way back to 1917 — a year before the country originally declared independence a century ago! The best thing for ZZS to do right now might just be to lay low a few years and then almost inevitably come back stronger than ever like another certain green immortal entity.

KPV LV, on the other hand, is a different case altogether, considering they went from having just Artuss Kaimiņš' one seat following his defection from Latvijas reģionu apvienība to tying for second place with 16 seats — five more than ZZS were able to acquire this time around. It's not much of a surprise that deputies weren't lining in droves to elect Kaimiņš to a position of legislative prominence considering his antics throughout his time the 12th Saeima. That won't matter much, however, if KPV LV is included in the governing coalition as all signs seem to indicate, as that will give the party far more influence over how things are run in the next few years than just a position in the presidium. In any case, Kaimiņš made sure to remind everyone that places on the presidium are not life appointments and could be revisited in the near future.

Three unofficial groups have begun to emerge

Image Credit: Karen Arnold
Much has been talked about how this next seven-party Saeima is one of the most fractured in the country's history, but it's no surprise that informal groups of parties have naturally begun to emerge. In their work during the coalition discussion prior to President Vējonis' Tuesday announcement and their voting as a block for positions in the Saeima presidium, the "old coalition" of ZZSNacionālā apvienība, and Jaunā Vienotība have more or less gone together with new party Attīstībai/Par!, which in itself includes quite a few former members of the latter party who jumped ship after chronic infighting. This cooperation was most clearly seen when parties in this group defended ZZS after Bordāns ruled out their inclusion in his potential coalition in the first two weeks of coalition discussions, and actively called for the party's inclusion in the next government.

Although their collaboration has been cautious and seemingly uneasy at times, JKP and KPV LV seem to have struck a working alliance, especially with Aldis Gobzems pledging KPV LV's support to Jānis Bordāns' potential new coalition for the time being. Both have drawn "red lines" against working with parties from the first group, with KPV LV refusing to work in a coalition led by Artis Pabriks and JKP ruling out collaboration with ZZS in new coalition completely. Saskaņa has once again been left in the cold by the other parties, but its 22 seats plus likely close cooperation with former faction member Jūlija Stepaņenko (see below) make it a sizable force in its own right.

What this means: It's not much of a surprise that Attīstībai/Par! would naturally gravitate more towards the "old coalition" parties given that a large amount of their members have worked in Vienotība, or that JKP and KPV LV would find more common ground considering that both campaigned as "outsiders" eager to effect major change. However, none of these three emerging groups have any sort of formal cooperation agreements, and none have a majority of seats in parliament. For anything to get done, including the momentous short-term task of forming a new government, these groups are going to need to put aside their considerable differences and find ways to work together. Whether the last few weeks has been a form of elaborate political theater and everything will start running smoothly will soon be seen.

Member of parliament Jūlija Stepaņenko announced her departure from the Saskaņa faction less than an hour after the first session began

Image Credit: Saeima, via Wikimedia Commons
Instead of taking a lunch break after President Raimonds Vējonis addressed the new legislature for... well, lunch, as one might expect, Jūlija Stepaņenko instead logged onto Facebook in order to make the stunning announcement that she would be leaving the Saskaņa parliament faction to become an independent member of Parliament. While Stepaņenko is technically a member of the Gods kalpot Rīgai party which shares a ballot with Saskaņa in elections, she has been one of the highest-profile and most controversial members of Saeima since first being elected to the legislature in 2014. In that time since, she has been an outspoken advocate of socially conservative positions, such as speaking out against a 2015 HIV awareness campaign by the Rīga City Council which she believed promoted same-sex marriage (a campaign which was abandoned after various objections) and asking Prime Minister Maris Kučinskis to open an investigation into an organization that promotes sex education. While it is fairly common for members of parliament to leave their factions and become independent (or form new factions as former Latvijas reģionu apvienība Artuss Kaimiņš did when he created the KPV LV party in 2016), it is virtually unprecedented for a deputy to do so less than an hour after a new session of Saeima begins.

What this means: According to Stepaņenko, the arrangement was agreed upon by both sides and supposedly proposed by Saskaņa leadership, and will give her more freedom to take positions on issues where she disagrees with the party's official position. However, the move might also be part of an effort in recent years by the party to ditch its pro-Russia image and recast itself as a traditional European-style social democratic party. These efforts have included quietly ending an official cooperation agreement with Vladamir Putin's United Russia party in 2016 and moving away from traditional hot-button issues such as the status of Russian as a state language in the recent election. While Stepaņenko hasn't been a pro-Kremlin advocate in her time in parliament, she has used some of the same Russia-style conspiratorial rhetoric including against philanthropist and populist bogeyman George Soros that the party seems to want to move away from. Whether Stepaņenko will follow the example of Kaimiņš and form her own faction remains to be seen, but this is not something that she has discussed yet.

Deputies were sworn into Saeima in Latvian, Latgalian, and Livonian

Everyday use of Latgalian by region in 2011
Image Credit: Xil, via Wikimedia Commons
While Latvian is the only official state language and must be used in all official government settings, Latgalian is considered by the state to be an official variant of it. While an estimated more than 150,000 speak Latgalian on an everyday basis, most of them in the eastern region of Latgale, Livonian is a language spoken in the western region of Kurzeme whose last native speaker died in 2013, and is more linguistically similar to Estonian and Finnish. Advocates of both languages celebrated on Tuesday when four deputies gave their oaths of office in Latgalian, including accomplished linguist and veteran of the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th Saeimas Janīna Kursīte-Pakule (Nacionālā apvienība) who confused onlookers by reciting in Livonian. When speaker Ināra Mūrniece asked her to deliver the oath again in the official state language, she did so but in the Kurzeme dialect of Latvian which is somewhat influenced by Livonian. The incident sparked a wide variety of reactions on social media, some questioning the need to turn this moment into a statement about Livonian language and others praising Kursīte-Pakule for the gesture.

What this means: The narrative throughout Europe in recent years has certainly been the rise of regionalism, and Latgale has certainly complained for years that the government hasn't shown the culturally unique region its due respect. While this situation has been blown out of proportion by foreign media who have gone as far as identifying it as the most likely next "Crimea moment," the reality is far less dramatic or dire. That being said, the use of Latgalian in the oath swearing ceremony certainly sends a message about the culturally distinct region's importance in Latvian society, even if it is literally lip service. Kursīte-Pakule's use of Livonian, on the other hand, is a bit hard to make heads or tails of. Her Nacionālā apvienība party has made protection of Latvian as the only official state language a major priority, so its quite interesting that fellow party member Mūrniece seemed blindsided when Kursīte-Pakule started speaking in a language that virtually no one in the audience could understand. Livonian already has certain state protections as an indigenous language, but whether this move leads to an emphasis on improving such measures is anyone's guess.

That's it for the most major takeaways from what was a quite exciting and unpredictable week in Latvian politics. We'll almost certainly have enough to write about next Saturday with Jānis Bordāns aiming to have a new government ready by Wednesday, so make sure to check back next week for that. Also to tune in tomorrow for our normally scheduled "weekly update" post and podcast episode which will cover other major happenings that took place in Latvia throughout the week, and will also briefly discuss Jānis Bordāns' work plan for the potential next government. Finally, don't forget to press "subscribe" for more of these types of guides that we post on a semi-regular basis, and "like" us on Facebook for major updates and stories of the day at the end of each evening. Take care!