Losing Riga – losing Latvia?

By Blog Admin, on 3 July 2013

Licia Cianetti explains the broad appeal of Latvia’s traditionally Russophone Harmony Centre party in Riga– but argues that ‘post-ethnic politics’ may not be just around the corner.

 On 1st June the residents of Riga went to the polls to elect a new City Council. The election came after four years under mayor Nils Ušakovs, the first ethnic Russian to lead an administration in the capital. Ušakovs secured another victory for his moderate Russophone ethnic party, Harmony Centre, and kept his post for another term.

That Ušakovs won did not come as a surprise to anybody was politics in Riga; the main question before the elections was not whether Harmony Centre would win but by how much it would win.

 Ušakovs was elected mayor of Riga in 2009, when Harmony Centre won 34% of the vote and had entered a coalition with the mainstream Latvian party Latvia’s First Party/Latvian Way (LPP/LC). The unthinkable then became reality: Riga, where a great share of Latvia’s population and wealth is concentrated, came under the control of a Russophone party that – by virtue of being Russophone – had consistently been excluded from power at the national level.

 The 2013 municipal election did not mark the end of this ‘anomaly’, but instead entrenched Harmony Centre’s dominant position in Riga. Harmony Centre’s electoral bloc with the local political party Gods kalpot Rigai! (Pround to serve Riga, GKR) won an impressive 58% of the vote, giving them 39 seats of the 60 seats in Riga City Council. Only two other parties made it beyond the 5% threshold: the right-wing nationalist National Alliance (17.8%, 12 seats) and the centre-right Unity (14%, 9 seats), both currently in the Latvian government. Ušakovs’s success in Riga surely will force other parties to reconsider about what to do with Harmony Centre at the state level, whose ongoing exclusion from national power is looking a less and less tenable strategy.

The end of the ethnic vote

First should Harmony Centre an ethnic Russian party be presented to the electorate as the enemy of the Latvian people? The Harmony Centre/GKR bloc responds to this with an emphatic ‘No’. The day after the elections, newspapers were filled with Harmony Centre/GKR candidates’ statements that proclaimed the end of ethnic vote and hailed the beginning of a new, post-ethnic era for Latvia. While this is clearly an overstatement, it does hold some truth.

 By presenting a joint list with GKR (heir to the disbanded LPP/LC) Harmony Centre intended to dispel the image of being a ‘party of the Russians’. There were rumours before the elections that Russophone voters would use the peculiar Latvian electoral system, in which voters can show both positive and negative preferences for candidates, to cancel out Latvian names from the Harmony Centre/GKR list and keep Harmony Centre as ‘their’ party. However, this did not happen. There was no ethnic pattern in the positive and negative preferences expressed by the bloc’s voters, and about 15 GKR candidates (many Latvian-speakers) made it into the City Council.

 On top of this, and perhaps more importantly, for Harmony Centre/GKR to get 58% of the vote, it must have received a not-insignificant share of the ethnic Latvian vote. Indeed, although over half of the population of Riga are Russian-speakers (51%), their share of the electorate is much lower as many Russian-speakers are non-citizens and do not have the right to vote. Lower turnout (from 59% in 2009 to 55%) is not enough to explain the remarkable results.

Radical nationalists lose ground

 While it is true that Russian-speakers voted solidly for Harmony Centre/GKR, this does not necessarily mean that they were galvanised by ethnic issues. Few of the ‘Latvian’ campaigned for their votes (and those that did so unconvincingly). At the same time, the Russophone electorate mostly ignored Harmony Centre’s more radical competitor Zarya (Za rodnoi yazyk – ‘For the Mother Tongue’), which remained well below the threshold with 0.3% of the vote. While Zarya did not enjoy much exposure in the Russian-language media (mostly controlled by Harmony Centre), this in itself hardly explains the extent of their defeat. Zarya was, after all, created by the same people who had successfully mobilised Russian-speakers in the controversial 2012 referendum on Russian as a second state language. Their debacle in the municipal election says something important about how difficult it is to translate protest into electoral capital, and about the often exaggerated power of ethnic outbidding.

 A look to the right of the political spectrum completes the picture. The nationalists, whose vote in Riga had plummeted well below the threshold in 2009, came back with a vengeance, collecting their highest proportion of the vote in Riga so far and surpassing Unity, their partner in the national government and a usually more moderate centre-right party. Both the Russian-language and the Latvian-language press pointed to Unity and its mayoral candidate Sarmīte Ēlerte as the architects of their defeat. Ēlerte conducted a heavily negative, anti-Ušakovs campaign and made no effort to attract the Russophone vote, preferring instead to try and outbid the National Alliance in nationalism.

While Ušakovs, strong in his position as popular incumbent, was talking about fixing the roads, improving social protection and building new kindergartens, Ēlerte kept talking about the Latvian language as the main priority for Riga. A telling example of Unity’s aggressively nationalist tone was their TV ad, which focuses on Ušakovs’s links to the Russian Federation and supposed disloyalty to Latvia, ending with the ominous slogan ‘Riga is the only capital city of our only country: if we lose Riga, we lose Latvia’. It is evident that ‘we’ was not intended here as a very inclusive pronoun.

 The negative campaign focusing on ethnic division alienated Russian-speakers, and possibly many moderate ethnic Latvians, and did not pay off. Those whose nationalist sentiments had been excited by the anti-Ušakovs campaign had no reason to switch allegiances and mostly gave their vote to the more consistently nationalist National Alliance.

Handling Harmony Centre

 The heated ethnic tone of the campaign on the ‘Latvian side’ made life difficult for another member of the current Latvian governing coalition, the Reform Party (RP), which got a disappointing 1.6%. A party with moderate positions on the ethnic RP decried the use of nationalist rhetoric and presented itself as the party of change appealing beyond ethno-linguistic fault lines. It did not categorically exclude entering a coalition with Harmony Centre in Riga. However, its message was too vague to attract Russophone voters: as a party functionary from the RP told me, ‘we ask the Russian-speakers to vote for us but then, when they ask what more we are ready to offer than the other Latvian parties, the answer is nothing’.

 All the parties now will have to decide how to handle Harmony Centre’s undeniable electoral strength, also shown in its success in becoming the biggest party in the 2012 parliamentary elections.  Andris Ameriks, leader of GKR, is already talking about the possibility of repeating the Harmony Centre/GKR bloc in the upcoming national elections. Some are reading the billionaire’s embrace of Ušakovs as a sign that Latvia’s oligarchs may be using Harmony Centre as a way back to national politics.

As for the other parties, RP will have to decide whether to  campaign for the Russian vote more decisively, while Unity will have to reconsider the wisdom of ‘going nationalist’ and might need to work hard to regain their image as pragmatic, economics-focused party.  The National Alliance, for its part, will not have to rethink a great deal: its strategy paid off, and it might try to use the results in Riga to gain the upper hand over their badly defeated coalition partners in the national government.

 While ‘If we lose Riga, we lose Latvia’ was an excessively dramatic campaign slogan (and indeed backfired), elections in Riga definitely have very strong reverberations over national politics. Harmony Centre’s victory may bring it closer to finally entering the government, breaking yet another taboo in Latvian politics. However, this might come at the price of dragging back with it the much-reviled oligarchs.

Moreover, the ethnic question (emphatically set aside by Harmony Centre/GKR spokespeople as obsolete) still plays a big part among the ‘Latvian parties’. Both Unity and RP – in their different ways –struggled in these elections to define their identity vis-à-vis Harmony Centre on the one side and National Alliance on the other. If they do not manage to get out of this cul-de-sac before the next national elections, competition will most probably be between Harmony Centre and the nationalists.

Grand statements about the Riga elections having ushered in a new, post-ethnic era for Latvia will then have proven wide of the mark.

Licia Cianetti is a PhD student at UCL-SSEES.Her primary research interests are minorities, democratic representation and power. Her PhD research deals with the political representation of Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia andtheir access to the policy-making process.

 Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.