Like a salmon swimming upstream, while scholars on populism debate about Brexit, the Spanish elections, the Icelandic new President, and Italian local elections, POP presents an article written by Ilze Balcere about the story of populist movements in Post-Soviet Latvia. Although they have been mainly short-lived and ephemeral experiences, a couple of populist parties made it to the national parliament (Saeima). Ilze Balcere traces the evolution of populism in Latvia in the last 20 years and claims that in her country populism does not seem to be a particularly successful political strategy, but this might change in the future.
In terms of populism, Latvia is certainly not the first country that comes to mind. In fact, there is a general lack of attention towards the manifestations and characteristics of populism in Latvia and the other Baltic States. More in general, while we know much about populism in Western Europe, we have less knowledge and understanding about this phenomenon in Eastern Europe. In this short article I will try to provide an overview about the short story of populism in Latvia and its impact on the political system.
The main reason why Latvia never constituted an attractive case-study for populism is that we do not have visible, influential or electorally successful (radical right-wing) populist parties. In fact, populist discourses in Latvia’s young democratic history have always been articulated by small, marginal and electorally irrelevant parties. Through the post-Soviet history of the Latvian party system, there have been only two electorally successful parties to whom the populist label can be applied, and they both proved to be short-lived: the People’s Movement for Latvia (Tautas kustība Latvijai, also known as the Zīgerista partija, ZP) and New Era (Jaunais laiks, JL). Recently a new populist movement, To whom belongs the state? (Kam pieder Valsts, KPV) emerged, and it remains to be seen for how long its momentum will last.
My own research indicates that anti-elitism and people-centrism (the core elements of populism) are more present in the discourses of small, marginal and electorally unsuccessful political forces whose chances of parliamentary representation have been very small. I have also discovered that there is a negative association between high levels of populism and a party’s chance to obtain a significant electoral success. My analysis measured the presence of populist messages only in party manifestos, but in general it seems to me that Latvian voters are not very keen to support parties expressing a populist ideology. This means that populism is not a successful political discourse, although the latest political developments might disprove it. I will come back to this point at the end of the article.
The People’s Movement for Latvia (ZP) was created before the 6th Saeima elections in 1995. Surprisingly, it was the third most voted party and conquered 16 seats. However, the party was unable to overcome the 5% electoral threshold three years later, in 1998. ZP gained popularity and visibility mainly thanks to its anti-establishment rhetoric and its leader Joachim Siegerist. German-Latvian entrepreneur and politician, he was a prominent journalist of the Bild-Zeitung and his father fought in the Waffen-SS. Inspired by the success and popularity of populist parties in Western Europe, Siegerist centered the message of his political force on the need to implement the people’s will accompanied with a strong criticism of the political elites. His political platform saturated the public discourse with unrealistic promises with zero attachment to the reality of the mid-1990s in Latvia.
Siegerist’s populist discourse was articulated through a peculiar style and gave rise to an extravagant electoral campaign. He campaigned across Latvia, especially its rural territories, trying to win support by distributing edible goods (like bread and bananas) to the people. Apparently it worked, since the ZP managed to get into the Saeima. The ephemeral parabola of the party was mainly linked to the unrealistic nature of its promises, and this led to the failure to elect any member of parliament 1998. Eventually the ZP disappeared from the Latvian political scene.
New Era (JL) is another party articulating a populist discourse. It represents the most successful populist party in Latvia, although its presence in the political scenario has been ephemeral. It was created in 2002 and managed to win the parliamentary elections in the same year, obtaining 26 deputy seats (23.9% of the vote). JL promoted liberally-oriented politics, while its electoral campaign and rhetoric contained strong anti-corruption appeals: anti-establishment was actually a defining feature of the party’s discourse (at least in its insurgent phase). The electoral success of JL was also due to its charismatic and extravagant leader Einars Repše, Prime Minister between 2002 and 2004. Former president of the Latvian Central Bank, Repše announced his entrance into politics in 2001. Quite controversially, he raised funds (half a million lats) in order to resign from the Latvian Bank and thus start his political career. JL received 18 seats in its second national elections in 2006, becoming the third party. In 2008 it split and in 2011 it eventually merged into the new party Unity (Vienotība), while Repše founded a new party called Latvian Development (Latvijas attīstībai).
— Anders Östlund (@andersostlund) December 7, 2015
The latest manifestation of populism in Latvia is Who owns the State? (Kam pieder Valsts, KPV). The party was created in May 2016, and it received media coverage mainly thanks to its leader Artuss Kaimiņš, who is an actor and radio personality. He was elected in 2014 national elections with the list Latvia Association of Regions (Latvia Reģionu apvienība, LRA), but in 2015 he resigned. The formal reason was his disappointment with the working style of his party’s colleagues, as well as his unwillingness to support Solvita Āboltiņa, Unity’s prime minister candidate. However, the real reason might be linked to the fact that he was not included in the government formation negotiation talks. Once he left the Latvia Association of Regions he formed the KPV.
Kaimiņš short political career has been rather scandalous so far: he films his activities in the Saeima, and his main parliamentary duties concern openly and directly criticizing other politicians and the work of civil servants. Thus, it is no surprise that the policy platform of the KPV is mainly based on populism. A short fragment from the manifesto illustrates the point: “Right now one can see that an arrogant government, self-proclaimed political elite who make decisions without any consent from the majority of the people is ruling the state”. The party polls illustrate rather positive future prospects for this party. In May 2016 it reached 6.1% popularity. The next parliamentary elections will take place in October 2018. Did Latvia find its populist champion?
 The Saeima is the parliament of Latvia. It is a unicameral parliament consisting of 100 members and the seats are allocated to political parties which gain at least 5% of the popular vote.
Ilze Balcere has received a doctoral degree in comparative politics from University of Latvia. She is working as a lecturer and researcher at the Advanced Social and Political Research Institute at the University of Latvia. Her research interests are populism, political parties, voting behavior and government formation. Currently working on a research about intra-party democracy in Latvia.