Latvia on brink of four-party coalition sign of things to come in Estonia?

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Latvian prime minister in waiting Krišjānis Kariņš (Unity).
Latvian prime minister in waiting Krišjānis Kariņš (Unity). Source: Latvijas Radio/Edgars Kupčs

Here at ERR News we don't normally cover stories outside Estonia or which don't directly involve the country or its citizens. However, breakthrough talks in the formation of a new coalition government in Estonia's southern neighbour, Latvia make it timely to look at what's going on there, comparing it with the party political landscape here in Estonia.

The list of Latvian political parties is, it has to be said, somewhat more complex and volatile than that of Estonia. Estonia has about nine parties in the running for parliamentary seats, including two newcomers, Estonia 200 and Richness of Life (which we formerly translated as 'the Biodiversity Party'). Of these, about a third will end up in office in March, with another three or so in opposition and the remainder with no Riigikogu seats.

Compare that with Latvia, where at present eight parties are represented either at parliament, the Saeima, or in Europe, or both (four Estonian parties send MEPs to Brussels). Add over a dozen minor or regional parties (compared with a couple or so visible ones in Estonia). The list of defunct political parties in Latvia is even longer; whilst that is also the case in Estonia, most of the latter tend to be historical rather than recently defunct.

We have to exercise caution here – the list of former parties does not give the full picture. Some parties have merged together, or split, retaining much of the same personnel, ethos and voter base, and others may have rebranded themselves. Both of these things happened to the present day Isamaa/Pro Patria, called IRL up until last year and already formed from a pairing of two separate parties, Isamaa and Res Publica. Ultimately, it is fair to say the proliferation of parties which emerged towards at the end of Soviet era with the new freedoms of Glasnost and Perestroika settled down in Estonia to a greater extent, and with a greater rationalisation of parties, than is so far the case in Latvia.

Latvia has a larger population than Estonia, though the gap is much smaller than it once was. Estonia's population has been growing slightly in recent years whereas Latvia's (and Lithuania's for that matter) has been in free fall. Whereas Latvia was home to about 2.7 million people on independence, it dipped below the 2 million mark some years ago and has continued to decline, as compared with Estonia's relatively stable circa 1.3 million of the past 10 years.

Latvia also has a substantial Russian-speaking minority (if it is even a minority) which has influenced party lines more than Estonia. There are two or three larger ''Russian'' parties there, compared with barely one in Estonia, the Centre Party, which has been busy consolidating its Estonian identity under Jüri Ratas' leadership, at least so far. In short, Latvia is more fragmented than Estonia. Other than that the spread of parties by nominal economic ethos is roughly the same in the two countries.

Potential new Latvian coaltion

As for the new Latvian coalition which is en route to striking an accord, it has been some time in the making. The general election was three months ago almost to the day, but it was only the satisfaction of at least some demands, mostly concerning its position and powers within a potential coaltion, from the right-leaning ''Kam pieder valsts? (''Who owns the state?'')* party, or KPV LV, which added the latter to the four parties already making up a predominantly right-leaning coalition. These are the National Alliance (NA), New Conservative (JKP), New Unity (V) and the more liberal/pro-European ''For Development/For!'' (''Kustība Par!, Par!'') parties, which together with KPV LV would in fact make five.

Unity Party leader, Latvian-American and MEP Krišjānis Kariņš indeed announced on Thursday that KPV LV would be in office, pending agreement from the other two coalition parties on Friday morning. If they give the green light too, Mr Kariņš will request his nomination as new Latvian prime minister from President Raimonds Vējonis, likely at or after a scheduled meeting between the president and the party leaders at 11.00 on Friday.

Could it happen in Estonia too?

This would end three months of wrangling and discussions in Latvia, but to what extent it presages events in Estonia after the general election of 3 March is less clear.

The party landscape may be calmer in Estonia, but there are still several possible outcomes in March, including both the big boys, the Centre Party and Reform, being in office together, probably with Jüri Ratas remaining prime minister. If this does happen, there would be less space in office for the smaller parties, including the Social Democratic Party (SDE), hitherto in the coalition, as well as SDE's nemesis, would be kingmakers the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE).

Both of these parties are hovering around the 10-15% support mark when it comes to the polls; SDE's figures may be a bit lower than how things will pan out on election day, whereas EKRE's may be inflated.

Add Estonia 200 into the mix, as well as the beleagured Isamaa/Pro Patria and Free parties (who are likely to respectively find themselves out of office and out of parliament altogether) and a four-party coalition here too may be possible, including with parties from differing parts of the political spectrum, already the case since 2016 with SDE and Pro Patria in office together, albeit with cracks opening up on the UN Global Compact on Migration issue.

However if Reform and Centre do strike a deal, we may avoid that and, even more important, not have a three month lag between election and government inauguration.

Update: On Monday, 7 January, Lavian President Raimonds Vējonis invited Krišjānis Kariņš to form a government from the parties enumerated above, with a sufficient number of KPV LV MPs, albeit not all, on board. This is in fact the third stab at forming a coalition since the general election in October, after would-be coalitions under first Janis Bordans and then Aldis Gobzems fell through.

Please note a previous version of this piece erroneously stated the coalition in Latvia, were it to go ahead, would consist of four parties. In fact there are four certain parties, NA, JKP, V and For Development/For! already on board, with KPV LV potentially joining them as a fifth.


* Latvian party names have some pretty idiosyncratic English translations which sound more like a nineteenth century Russian author's canon. Added to the rhetorically named ''Who Owns the State?'' is ''For Latvia From the Heart'', ''Unity'', ''Harmony'', ''Growth'', ''Movement for!'', ''Proud to Serve Riga'', ''Proud to Serve Our Latvia'' and ''United for Latvia''.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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