To avoid an ignominious end, Jaunais Laiks 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.
Jaunais Laiks (the New Era) entered the Latvian political arena with a bang. The party, particularly its colourful founder Einārs Repše, has commanded Latvian media headlines for almost six years. However, Jaunais Laiks currently finds itself in a difficult position. A recent change of party leadership revealed deep fractures between rival party factions, roughly grouped around Repše and his former lieutenant, but now party chairman, Krišjānis Kariņš. At the same time the party finds itself outmaneuvered and dumped out of the Riga local municipality governing coalition, and deeply estranged from the parties forming the national government. These have long been the political ingredients for party collapse in Latvia. Is this the end of the much talked about new era of Latvian politics?
To avoid an ignominious end, Jaunais Laiks 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.
Fragmentation or disintegration?
Einārs Repše is a fascinating but deeply polarizing character. While his powerful charisma repels as much as it attracts, there is no doubt that his committed and passionate anti-corruption stance continues to strike a chord with a Latvian public long jaded by tales of graft among the rich and politically connected. His charismatic personality, aligned with a fierce anti-corruption rhetoric, allowed him to swiftly build a party capable of winning the 2002 parliamentary election, and then finishing second in 2006. To many, perhaps even most of its members, supporters and voters, Einārs Repše is Jaunais Laiks. Indeed, Repše has repeatedly stated that he, rather than the formal institutions of the party, is the guarantor of the morality and honesty of the organization. In this sense, replacing Repše with the hard-working, intelligent, but less charismatic Krišjānis Kariņš is a risky move.
Indeed, the coup against Repše was initiated by the party parliamentary elite, which accused Repše of aloof, arrogant and subsequently weak leadership. The rank-and-file membership still remains largely loyal to the former leader. And an attempt to peacefully manage the leadership transition by creating a party council (dome) to which Repše was elected Chairman, may instead provide a focus discontent against the current leadership, and create a second power base within the party.
At least one prominent party member has pointed out that factionalization is a perfectly normal process in western democratic parties, and thus should also be seen as acceptable, and perhaps even healthy, in Latvia. Certainly, internal political disputes are not necessarily a negative thing, spurring debate on policy, personnel and overall political direction. Many of Europe’s leading parties are haunted by ongoing leadership disputes – the Labour and Conservative parties in the UK, the Christian Democrats in Germany, and Jacque Chirac’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) in France. However, given the weak traditions and ideological unity of Latvian parties, together with the ease with which a new party can be created (just 200 founding members being needed), even minor party disputes have historically resulted in fragmentation or collapse.
The long-term future of the party was recently even called into question by the Jaunais Laiks nominee for Latvian President, Sandra Kalniete, who commented that a new party could be formed following evidence on political corruption presented at the forthcoming trial of Aivars Lembergs. This merely reinforces the conviction that Jaunais Laiks, like other political parties in Latvia, is not a permament organization in the tradition of West European parties. Rather, the Latvian political elite continues to adopt a Schumpeterian, minimalist conception of a political party as an organization that merely brings together a political elite to stand for office in elections, rather than a permament organization consisting of a broader coalition of ideas, citizens and citizen organizations.
Kariņš will have to swiftly bring this fractious membership into line. However, a bigger challenge will be creating a set of cohesive policies to supplement, if not entirely replace, its current populist platform.
From populism to policy
This will not be easy. Political parties all across Europe have been experiencing ideological crises. Post-modernism has resulted in an increased blurring of party ideological boundaries, and resulting policy encroachment. All across Europe left-wing parties are capturing traditional right-wing votes by adopting a tough national security language, while right-wing parties are adopting green policies. This has led to an overcrowding of the ideological political centre space.
One way of escaping the overcrowded centre ground has been the adoption of a populist agenda. Populists have recently achieved significant electoral advances across the central European post-communist region. Prawo I Sprawiedliwosc (Law and Justice) won the October 2005 Polish parliamentary election, and its identical twin-brother leadership currently holds both the presidency and the prime ministers office. However, populist parties are fundamentally unstable, operating on emotions, especially a largely unfocused anger, rather than a rational political programme. While the eminent Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastsev has argued that many populist parties actually adopt centrist-liberal policies after electoral victory, this merely results in further disillusionment among an increasingly jaded and cynical electorate.
Jaunais Laiks clearly fits into the populist party family. Krastsev has identified ten elements to the populist agenda – ‘authentic anger, unrestrained hatred of the elites, policy vagueness, economic egalitarianism, cultural conservatism, compassionate radicalism, measured euroscepticism and anti-capitalism, declared nationalism, undeclared xenophobia, and anti-corruption rhetoric’. While even its most entrenched enemy could not seriously accuse Jaunais Laiks of euroscepticism, xenophobia or an anti-capitalist message, the party is most closely identified with a vague anti-something and corruption fighting rhetoric, rather than a balanced economic or social programme. This has made it all too easy for the current governing parties to dismiss it as an unstable and unpredictable political partner.
This poses a significant problem for the new leadership. Jaunais Laiks’ core support is rooted in its simple populist message. Abandoning this for a more sophisticated approach may disenchant the party’s base, and raise questions about its very existence. After all, if the anti-corruption message is sidelined, and the party focuses on economic or foreign policy issues, how will Jaunais Laiks be different to Tautas Partija or TB/LNNK?
Thus Jaunais Laiks faces a difficult period. However, events could still play into its hands. The governing coalition’s inability to deal with the huge current account deficit and high inflation edges Latvia ever nearer a potentially debilitating macroeconomic crisis, thus potentially shattering the image of technocratic competence that underlies support for the current Kalvītis government. Moreover, the ongoing corruption case against the mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, plays into Jaunais Laiks strongest policy area. However, in order to take advantage of these events, the party must first organize itself into a unified, cohesive unit that offers a real policy-driven alternative to the current administration. If Krišjānis Kariņš is able to do this, there might be some political life left in Jaunais Laiks after all.
 Ainars Latkovskis (2007). Vai grūti būt rietumnieciskiem?. Diena. 30th March 2007. p.2 It can be viewed on the Jaunais Laiks web site: http://www.jaunaislaiks.lv/news.php?id=80&news_id=436
 Joseph Schumpeter (1947). Capitalism, socialism, and democracy, 2nd ed.. New York: Harper Press.
 Ivan Krastsev (2006). The new Europe: Respectable populism and clockwork liberalism. Available at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article.jsp?id=3&debateId=109&articleId=3376#