The Machiavellian succesors of Latvijas Ceļš

04. September, 2007

Foto: Elmars Rudzitis

Rather than being viewed as Christian-conservative or liberal movements, both parties Latvijas ceļš and Latvijas Pirmā partija are better understood as Machiavellian creations united by a unquenchable thirst for political office.

The recent merger of Latvijas Pirmā Partija (Latvia’s First Party) and Latvijas Ceļš (Latvia’s Way), as well as two utterly insignificant regional parties – Vidzemes Apvieniba (Vidzemes Union) and Mes Savam Novadam (We For Our Region) – marks an end to the eventful life of Latvia’s most influential modern political party. Latvijas Ceļš was the first power party of Latvian politics. It was represented in all eight government coalitions between 1993 and 2002, half of which were led by Latvijas Ceļš Prime Ministers. No party has come close to equaling its record haul of 36 parliamentary deputies in the 1993 election. It is no exaggeration to claim that more than any other party or individual, Latvijas Ceļš has shaped the nature of both the modern Latvian polity, and the political parties that occupy it. Yet after failing to pass the 5% threshold in the 2002 election, Latvijas Ceļš faded from the political scene, only scraping into the current parliament through an electoral alliance with Latvijas Pirmā Partija. Moreover, the bulk of 2006 election campaign planning, financing, and policy came from Latvijas Pirmā Partija. The formal merger of the two has long seemed inevitable.

Latvijas Pirmā Partija and Latvijas Ceļš are likely to have a peaceful marriage, largely because Latvijas Ceļš is just a shadow of the party it once was. Indeed, Latvijas Pirmā Partija is strong in the three key elements of Latvian electoral politics that Latvijas Ceļš both created, and once dominated. First, Latvijas Pirmā Partija has extensive business patronage, guaranteeing it a steady and sizeable source of party income. Second, this allows the party to fund expensive, professionally managed election campaigns. Third, the party’s television, newspaper, and other media advertisements are focused around vote-winning personalities (regardless of their intellectual capacity or even interest in politics). Latvijas Ceļš recent weakness in these three dimensions meant that it faced either an agonizingly drawn-out death, or amalgamation with a stronger political force. It chose the latter. This final desperate, perhaps even pathetic, attempt to grip on to power by its fingertips is entirely in keeping with the historical ethos and spirit of the party.

The Origins of Latvijas Ceļš

Latvijas Ceļš emerged from Klubs 21, an organization that informally brought together the early post-communist Latvian political and economic elite. Businessmen, politicians and a smattering of intellectuals freely debated public policy, world affairs and cut deals, safe in the knowledge that their discussions would not be leaked to the media. However, after the formation of Latvijas Ceļš, these informal and opaque links between business and politics were carried over into the public policy process. Indeed, the secrecy in which Klubs 21 meetings were held spilled over into political party organization and government discourse, and eventually became an embedded characteristic of Latvian politics.

The party’s initial electoral success was based on its recruitment of vote-winning personalities from the former communist nomenclature, émigré Latvian community, as well as popular entertainers and sportsmen. Latvijas Ceļš party list in the 1993 election was known as the “dream team”. Anatolijs Gorbunovs, recruited from the former communist nomenclature, was the most popular politician in Latvia. Not only was he an imposing figure, famous for his dark, luxuriant bouffant hairstyle, he was also seen as an experienced, technocratic politician that would provide a safe pair of hands in a period of dramatic change. In his retelling of these years, Māris Gailis wrote that ‘it was very important for us [Latvijas Ceļš] to recruit Gorbunovs… it was clear that whichever party he joined would win the election. For the same reason, Latvijas Ceļš would not allow Ivars Godmanis, the unpopular serving Latvijas Tautas Frontes prime minister, to join.’[1] For a short period of time, émigré Latvians gave the party credibility as a liberal reformers. The recruitment of the musician Raimonds Pauls, and others like him, was a purely populist move (repeated in later years by Jaunā Partija (New Party) and Tautas Partija (People’s Party)).

Latvijas Pirmā Partija has continued this tradition of focusing on personalities. The 2006 parliamentary election campaign emphasized the alleged dynamism of Ainars Šlesers (t-shirts with the famous superman “S” logo changed to portray an “Š” for Šlesers, little cans of energy drinks with the Šlesers name plastered on the side and so on) as well as the fuzzy, touchy-feely supposed family-centered sensitivity of the Lutheran minister Ainars Baštiks.

Latvijas Ceļš early election campaigns were sponsored through corporate donations. Indeed, Latvijas Ceļš played a key role in establishing the current system of private, rather than public, political party financing. Latvia’s extremely liberal political campaigning laws place few limits on television, radio or newspaper advertising. Although the system has been modified since the golden years of Latvijas Ceļš, with limits on individual donations and party spending caps, Latvijas Pirmā Partija spends in a style familiar to Latvijas Ceļš, ignoring or circumnavigating any legal restrictions. Together with Tautas Partija, it is the true political heir of Latvijas Ceļš.

The irrelevance of ideology

The one potential sticking point between the parties appears to be the issue of ideology. Latvijas Ceļš, of course, claims to be a liberal party. In contrast, Latvijas Pirmā Partija is ostensibly based on Christian-conservative values. However, in reality ideology is not used to shape either partys’ programme or policies. Rather, it is better understood as a part of the electoral strategy and external image construction of both parties. Ideology helps to give political parties an outside identity that can be used to both attract votes from a particular segment of society, as well as give the party a wider, international credibility by identifying it with some broader European political mainstream.

Latvijas Ceļš adopted liberalism because it was the dominant west European ideology in the early 1990s. Moreover, liberalism as an ideology is difficult to define – indeed, it can be simultaneously interpreted in many different ways. Thus liberalism proved useful in explaining away deep internal divisions (typically caused by rifts between rival economic groupings within the party), by arguing that liberal parties were typically diverse. Liberalism was not adopted as a guiding political philosophy. In the same way, Latvijas Pirmā Partija uses a Christian-conservative rhetoric to win votes, and shape its external image, not as a guide to shaping policy. After all, where was the Christian dimension in the Jurmala-gate vote-buying scandal? Or in the flagrant abuse of the campaign financing laws in the 2005 local elections, and 2006 parliamentary election?

Rather than being viewed as Christian-conservative or liberal movements, both parties are better understood as Machiavellian creations united by a unquenchable thirst for political office. And this is what makes them such suitable companions and will allow the illiberal, extremist values of Janis Smits to sit quite comfortably with the more mellow liberalism of Ivars Godmanis.

As a result, the Latvijas Pirmā Partija / Latvijas Ceļš merger is likely to be a success. Latvijas Ceļš has long been usurped by Tautas Partija as the party of the establishment. This merger gives it the illusion of returning to the boardroom table, and perhaps re-emerging as the party of the establishment. However, this is actually more of a takeover than a merger. Latvijas Pirmā Partija has the money, a smattering of charismatic personalities, and the political skill and experience that Latvijas Ceļš once had in abundance. The new party is an entirely appropriate successor to Latvijas Ceļš.

[1] Māris Gailis, 1997. Varas tehnoloģija. Rīga: Jumava. P. 77. Ivars Godmanis eventually joined Latvijas Ceļš in 1998.

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