Will the Red Rose Bloom?

18. October, 2005


Daunis Auers

Foto: E. Rudzitis

It is unlikely that this moderate rise in trade union activism will be translated into significant left-wing parliamentary representation, or an organized left wing movement. It is being held back by ethnic cleavege, political fragmentation and flawed image of social democrats.

Some observers have argued that the recent gathering of trade union activists against poverty (“Mēs pret nabadzību”), coupled with demonstrations and strikes by medical and education workers, as well as rumblings of union organization in the police, provide clear evidence that trade union activism in Latvia is on an upswing.[1] Indeed, the Latvian Free Trade Union (Latvijas brīvo arodbiedrību savienība – LBAS) claims a membership of 170,000 people, around 20% of the working population.[2] At the same time, however, there are no recognized social democratic political parties in the current Latvian parliament. With the next parliamentary election less than a year away, this leads to an obvious question: does this increased trade union activity point towards a resurgence of the Latvian left?

In Latvia, as elsewhere in both eastern and western Europe, the left-wing of democratic politics has traditionally been dominated by social democratic parties, many of which have close ties with the trade union movement. While originating in the socialist movement of the nineteenth century, the social democrats sought to introduce socialism through democratic, rather than revolutionary, means. Historically, the largest left-wing party in Latvia has been the Latvian Social Democrat Workers Party (Latvijas Sociāldemokrātu Strādnieku Partija – LSDSP). The LSDSP was certainly well represented in each inter-war Latvian parliament, and was also the only organized (albeit miniscule) political party in the post-second world war émigré community. The current LSDSP was only formed in 1999 following the merger of a number of smaller social democratic parties. However, it likes to advertise itself as the successor to the inter-war LSDSP. For example, in election campaigns it harks back to the inter-war era, and calls itself the party of Janis Rainis (the great social-democratic poet, author and three-time inter-war parliamentary deputy).[3] Whether Janis Rainis himself would identify with the contemporary Latvian social democrats is, however, open to question. Indeed, the LSDSP also lacks any substantive connection with the great Social Democratic parties of Western Europe.[4] The Social Democrat parties of Western Europe have tackled modernity and adopted progressive policies in social issues such as gender and sexual minority rights – areas in which the LSDSP can only be described as reactionary. In addition, there are three other factors that offer dim prospects for a left wing revival in Latvia.

First, in the fourteen years of democratic political competition since 1991, Latvian politics has been dominated by the ethnic cleavage. “Latvian” parties have successfully branded all “Russian-speaking” parties as “leftists” (Kreisie). While some are undoubtedly on the left (e.g. the Latvian Socialist Party – Latvijas Sociālistu Partija), others are actually far more liberal in their economic policies than some of their “Latvian” counterparts (e.g. the National Harmony Party – Tautas Saskanas Partija). Nevertheless, the “leftist” label has stuck, and is widely regurgitated in the print and electronic media. This means that while many Latvian voters do have sympathies for left-of-centre policies, they have voted for centre or right-wing “Latvian” parties – the “think left, but vote right” conundrum. Moreover, the left is in a real dilemma when it comes to the ethnic issue. A modern European social democratic party would be expected to stand up for minority rights. However, this would ostracize left of centre politicians from the “Latvian” mainstream parties. Also, it would undoubtedly cost them Latvian votes – survey evidence clearly shows that ethnic Latvians vote for parties that they perceive as Latvian, while Russian speakers vote for parties that support their interests.[5] And despite accession to the EU and NATO, the high profile school reform demonstrations and ongoing strained relations with Russia are likely to maintain the salience of the ethnic cleavage.

Second, the left-wing of the political spectrum is rather fragmented. In addition to the LSDSP, a cluster of smaller parties compete, and splinter, the left-wing vote e.g. the United Social-Democratic Welfare Party (Apvienotā sociāldemokrātiskā labklājības partija – Sociāldemokrātiskā labklājības partija), the Labour Party (Darba Partija), and the Social Democratic Union (SociālDemokratu Savieniba). However, maximizing the vote by grouping around the LSDSP (the largest party) is difficult because the LSDSP organization is deeply fractured itself. In its leadership elections in April this year, Juris Bojārs pipped Dainis Ivans by just 186 votes to 167. Moreover, the left-wing has no charismatic leaders capable of bringing the movement together and attracting new voters.

Third, the LSDSP has not done the left any favours with its four year (2001-2005) stewardship of the Riga municipality. Rather, it became mired in an image of sleaze, corruption and cronyism. As a result, the LSDSP looks like any other Latvian party of power, and is thus unable to provide the kind of crusading, messianic image that has ensured electoral success for new parties, or those outside parliament, in each of the four previous post-communist parliamentary elections. Its leadership is particularly flawed. Gundars Bojārs, the former Mayor of Riga and current General Secretary of LSDSP (whose only connection with the social democratic ideal appears to be paternal), is best known for the ostentatious consumption of his personal life rather than any progressive social policies. He is not a figure that can legitimately campaign on behalf of the “workers”.

This means that a resurgence in trade union activism may struggle to find an appropriate political expression on the left. Indeed, the LBAS does not necessarily have to constrain its political partnership with parties of the left. After all, a previous president of the LBAS, Juris Radzevičs, entered the political arena with Latvia’s First Party (Latvijas Pirmā Partija – LPP), a party that is such a hodge-podge of policy and ideology that it is virtually impossible to define on an ideological scale. Indeed, the “catch-all” nature of modern Latvian parties, who use ideology only superficially, means that all parties are likely to be sympathetic to trade union demands in the run-up to the 2006 election.[6]

In any case, the resurgence of trade unionism may well be overstated. While the organizers of the demonstration against poverty had hoped to attract 12-14,000 demonstrators, the police estimated the crowd at just 6,000 (and many attendees were pensioners and students, not trade union members). A poor turnout from an organization that claims a membership of 170,000. Moreover, while trust in trade unions has risen sharply in Latvia over the last four years, they are still more distrusted than trusted.[7] For all these reasons, this moderate rise in trade union activism is unlikely to be translated into significant left-wing parliamentary representation, or an organized left wing movement, in the near future.

[1] “Arodbiedrības vadītājs mītiņu Doma laukumā vērtē kā izdevušos”. Delfi, October 1st

[2] Also, 20% of ethnic Latvian respondents and 16% of ethnic Russian respondents to a 2004 opinion survey claimed trade union membership. Richard Rose (2005), The New Baltic Barometer VI: A Post-Enlargement Survey. Strathclyde: Centre for the Study of Public Policy

[3] e.g. LSDSP home page.

[4] See, for example, Michael Dauderstadt (2004), “The Eastern Enlargement of Social Democracy?” Osteuropa. 54, May-June 2004

[5] Baltijas Sociālo Zinātņu Institūts (2003), 8. Saeimas Velesanas Analize. Atskaite. Riga: BSZI

[6] See Otto Kircheimer (1966), ‘The Transformation of West European Party Systems’ in Joseph La Palombara and Myron Weiner (eds), Political Parties and Political Development. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[7] In 2001 22% of ethnic Latvians and 19% of ethnic Russians trusted trade unions, while 60% and 64%, respectively, did not. But by 2004 30% of ethnic Latvians and 33% of ethnic Russians trusted trade unions, while 44% and 40%, respectively, did not. Richard Rose (2001), New Baltic Barometer V: A Pre-enlargement Survey. Strathclyde: Centre for the Study of Public Policy. Richard Rose (2005), The New Baltic Barometer VI: A Post-Enlargement Survey. Strathclyde: Centre for the Study of Public Policy raksts

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