Because Jaunais Laiks appears to be incapable of developing any discernible economic, social or foreign policies, it may be time for the party to return to basics and focus on Einars Repse and his almost messianic mission to fight graft.
Jaunais Laiks: On the abyss?
Less than a year ago I wrote that: “to avoid an ignominious end, Jaunais Laiks (the New Era) must tackle two major challenges. First, to manage its leadership transition while building party unity. Second, to move beyond the populist anti-elite and anti-corruption rhetoric that has served it moderately well until recently, and develop multi-dimensional policies that portray it as a serious and viable alternative to the current government.” However, Jaunais Laiks failed to address either issue, hobbling along in the quaintly amateurish, ad-hoc fashion that it has patented. Rather than a period of renewal, the past year has been marked by continued factional in-fighting and populist posturing.
Nevertheless, towards the end of 2007 Jaunais Laiks was presented with the sort of golden opportunity that comes all too rarely to opposition parties. First, the [Aigars] Kalvitis government committed political suicide, presenting Jaunais Laiks with an opportunity to join the next government coalition. Second, the accelerating economic malaise engulfing Latvia gave the party an opportunity to develop a distinctive economic policy to contrast with the ill-disciplined, inflationary approach of the Kalvitis cabinet.
However, Jaunais Laiks fluffed both openings. First, the party’s internal divisions meant that it failed to formulate or present a coherent and unified front in negotiations with potential coalition partners or Ivars Godmanis, the then prime minister in waiting. This was a lost opportunity, because Jaunais Laiks offered a distinctive and unique corruption fighting rhetoric that the other government coalition parties desperately needed at a time of low legitimacy, and a slew of ongoing corruption investigations. Second, this lack of internal unity, combined with a worrying lack of economic know-how (the party is rich in talented scholars from the arts and humanities, but lacks a cadre of accomplished economists), meant that the party failed to develop a structured and coherent critique of the eccentric economic policies of the Kalvitis government.
The fallout was predictable. The deep divisions (possibly the worst kept secret in Latvian politics) finally came out into the open, as Sandra Kalniete led a group of parliamentary deputies and regional leaders to exit the party. Most of this group seems likely to plunge into building a new party with Girts Valdis Kristovskis and his former TB/LNNK compatriots. At the same time, Artis Pabriks and Aigars Stokenbergs are forming a new left-of-center party that may well be in ideological competition with an Atis Lejins (the long-standing director the Latvian Foreign Policy Institute) re-energized LSDSP.
The Latvian party system is clearly undergoing a period of fragmentation. These new parties will campaign against the perceived corruption of the contemporary political elite (ignoring the fact that at least some of their party leadership has been at the vanguard of Latvian politics for several years), thus eating into the Jaunais Laiks core voter demographic. Weakened internally, and threatened externally, Jaunais Laiks now stands at the abyss. Will the party congress called for 1st March mark the beginning of the end for Einars Repse's experiment at institutionalizing corruption-fighting rhetoric?
Probably not. While external events are out of their hands, a simple internal reorganization would allow the party to remain a major political player. This would entail the party’s founder, and only truly charismatic politician, Einars Repse, re-entering front line politics. While many voters are repelled by Einars Repse high-handedness, others are attracted to the focused strength of his convictions. Those left in Jaunais Laiks have presumably come to terms with his idiosyncrasies. At the same time, in light of the new parties currently being formed or renewed, Jaunais Laiks is unlikely to attract a flood of new members. Because Jaunais Laiks appears to be incapable of developing any discernible economic, social or foreign policies, it may be time for the party to return to basics – to focus on Repse and his almost messianic mission to fight graft. This could turn the failure to join the government coalition in December into a long-term advantage.
The future of Jaunais Laiks will also be influenced by events elsewhere. Artis Pabriks and Aigars Stokenbergs have the popular charm, intelligence and political nous to dominate the Latvian political system for the next decade. However, they risk electoral marginalization in persisting with the charade of building a left-of-center party. John Edwards should have been the next president of the USA, but his campaign floundered on obvious fiction of a multi-millionaire trial lawyer, whose house boasts a private full-size basketball court, squash court, swimming pool and other luxuries, claiming to dedicate his life to defend the poor. Stokenbergs, a successful businessman, has already been accused of this duplicity. At the same time, Pabriks largely authored the original Tautas Partija electoral programme. Their turn to the political left seems like political opportunism. Moreover, there is no golden rule that every political system must have a social-democratic party. The salient divide in Latvia is ethnic, not socio-economic, and it will continue to be ethnic for quite some time (although the socio-economic dimension could grow in importance if the economy stalls). Furthermore, if Atis Lejins achieves the almost impossible and succeeds in rebuilding LSDSP into an authentic, modern social democratic party, there could be two parties competing for a very small, possibly non-existent, voter demographic.
This is why the Jaunais Laiks defectors may be wise to grab onto the coat-tails of Girts Valdis Kristovskis, an astute and experienced politician whose mooted moderately nationalist and right-of-center party will both attract the cash, and the cadres, to storm into the 2010 parliament, and perhaps even do well in the local and European elections in 2009. Kristovskis’ status as a European Parliamentarian has left him untainted by the recent grubby domestic political conflicts. At the same time he has maintained a high public profile by dint of hard work and the Latvian medias disproportionate interest in the doings of the European Parliament. Kristovskis combines a decade of gritty ministerial experience with the hope and vision of Einars Repse circa 2002. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, his new party will be a force to be reckoned with.
Thus while Jaunais Laiks’ future is at least partly out of its hands, a return to basics, with Repse leading an authentic assault on political graft, should enable it to retain its important voice in contemporary Latvian politics.
 Daunis Auers (2007). “Quo Vadis, Jaunais Laiks”. http://www.policy.lv/index.php?id=103211&lang=en
 Don Carrington (2007). “Edwards Home County’s Largest”, Carolina Journal Online. 26th January 2007. http://www.carolinajournal.com/exclusives/display_exclusive.html?id=3848