Monday, 19 September 2011

Another small victory for Europe's Left - or is it?

Saturday's general election in Latvia yielded a victory for the country's centre-left coalition Harmony Centre. The coalition won the largest amount of seats in the parliament. But though this may seem like yet another promising victory for Europe's left following Thursday's election in Denmark, the facts on the ground are a bit more complicated than that.

Harmony Centre is a coalition between the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Party (the communists). The SP is essentially an ethnic Russian party, formed in 1991 to replace the Communist party after the country achieved independence from the USSR. Though the new state was formed around the Latvian ethnic and linguistic identify, in fact less than 60% of people in Latvia are ethnically Latvian. Almost 30% of the country is made up of ethnic Russians, some of whom moved there during the Soviet period but others of whom have lived there hundreds of years. The majority of the ethnic Russians cannot speak Latvian. In some of latvia's largest cities they constitute the majority of residents by far.

The status of ethnic Russians in Latvia is perhaps the country's greatest controversy, one it shares with neighbouring Estonia. Most of the ethnic Russians were not given citizenship after the country attained independence in 1991, because knowledge of the Latvian language was required to obtain citizenship. About 45% of ethnic Russians in Latvia still do not have citizenship, and are essentially stateless persons. Those who are citizens and can vote have remained loyal to the communists, whereas ethnic Latvians tend to vote for the centre-right parties.

So in fact, this was a victory not for the left, but for Ethnic Russians in Latvia. In fact the centre-left coalition is not even a member of the Party of European Socialists at European level. The 'centre-left' Harmony Centre coalition is in fact dominated by the former communists, and the centre-left party that is affiliated with the PES hasn't been represented in the Latvian partliament since 2002. It would therefore be hard to glean any kind of pan-European trend from this election result. In Latvia, most people who vote for Harmoney Centre are doing so for ethnic rather than left-right ideological reasons.

In terms of its actual impact on the left-right balance of Europe's governments, it looks likely that the ethnic Latvian parties are going to unite to ensure that Harmony Centre does not form even part of the government. With 28.43% of the vote, Harmony Centre does not have the outright majority it would need to form a government on its own.


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itinerantlondoner said...

Interesting stuff. Although it seems that the ex-communists are actually very much the junior partner in the Harmony Centre coalition, with the majority of seats being for the social democrats, who while not being a member of the PES do actually sit with them as part of the S&D alliance in the European Parliament