As emergency elections in Latvia is coming close and another battle between present day political parties is fought, its worth to remember the times of the first period of Latvian independence from 1918 to 1934. What was common and uncommon in political party system in Latvia. And have present day Latvian politicians have learned something from the mistakes of the past politicians.
It was a peculiarity in Latvia, that very first Latvian political party was on the left-wing. Despite the roots of Latvian nationalism begun to rise in the last quarter of 19 Century it was not yet political, but more culturally based associated with middle class intelligence. In Russian Empire with no real hope for independence more important was the social matters. The growing worker class in the main cities of Latvia and their intellectual supporters found their ideas in teachings in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that seemed a perspective solution for those times. In 1903 in Switzerland Latvian Social Democrat Union (LSDU) was founded. In 1904 many Socialdemocratic organizations formed the Latvian Social Democratic Workers party (LSDWP). The party was influenced by the Russian Social Democratic Workers party and joined its ranks as Latvian Social Democrats (LSD). LSDU was more nationalistic than LSDWP and desired independence from the Russian Empire. LSDWP strived for autonomous socially progressive Latvia in united Russia. In the end LSDU was a short lived project, however many of its original members like Miķelis Valters, Ernests Rolavs and Kārlis Skalbe became important personalities during the war of independence and later.
The Revolution of 1905 was the first active action time for Latvian Social Democrats. LSD organized demonstrations, strikes and violent actions against Czarist- Baltic German regime. The LSD was the main force behind the revolution. Their goal was to help to topple the Czarist government and fight against the privileged Baltic German minority. The independence was not the main goal at that time. The failure of 1905, a revolution made LSD to go underground. The main leaders were either exiled or sent to Siberia. Also a visible split was seen in LSD as the radical communists begun to gather majority in the party. At this time also few right-wing parties as the Peoples Party and Democratic Union emerged.
The collapse of Russian Empire changed the situation in Latvian politics. Latvian nationalist and right wing elites begun to organize their institutions for forming of national Latvian state. The LSD was against the forming of the Latvian Provisional National Council and stated that they see Latvia as part of a United Russian federation. Despite that LSD members took part in another right wing origination the Democratic Block. However, a split happened within LSD as the majority of communist minded members broke away. Moderate social democrats remained under LSDWP name. Despite anticommunist notions LSDSP remained hostile to Peoples Council and Karlis Ulmanis Provisional Latvian government and remained in opposition within all War for Freedom.
First right-wing party after February revolution was a Latvian radical democratic party founded in St. Petersburg, its leaders were Gustavs Zemgals and others. The party was dissolved in 1920. In same time Latvian Independence Alliance with leaders such as Fricis Trasuns. It was also a short-lived party. But it was the Latvian Farmers union (LFU) that become the main force. The main person Karlis Ulmanis became the first prime minister of Latvia. The party fought for national and especially farmers’ interests that were the majority of Latvians of those times. In Moscow prominent people like Atis Kenins, Karlis Skalbe, Janis Akuraters and Karlis Blodnieks organized Latvian National Democratic party. In 1918 in Riga Arveds Bergs and Voldemars Zamuels gathered in Latvian Republican party.
During the war for freedom all parties except LSDWP made national consensus. After the war was won, and parliamentary elections were to take place the consensus ended and fierce rivalry begun. Only LSDWP and LFU remained solid political forces and was to be the main rivals in the future. The first Latvian parliament was the Satversmes Sapulce (Constitutional Assembly) its main goal was to write new a constitution and make reforms fort the new Latvian state.
The law to make new parties was liberal – to register a party only 100 members were needed. And since not all Latvian citizens supported LSDWP and LFU it was an open door to find a countless political parties for elections. It was not only ideological minded parties them political interest groups like Teetotaler party and regional parties. To make it complicated there was no official percent barrier to prevent small time parties from entering the parliament. By this parties that could gather above 1,5% of the people’s votes could have one elected deputy in the parliament. It was a starting point for unstable parliaments and short lasting governments. Also it made possible corruption and machinations within the parliament. However a positive side was for national minority parties that could get their nationals elected. But on other point it prevented minorities to form united political parties and because of this minorities such as Jews and Russians had dozens of rivaling political parties.
In all five elections on 1920, 1922, 1925, 1928 and 1931 the winners were LSDWP and LFU. Bet almost never they could form majority governments because of the other parties with single elected deputies. Plus LSDWP refrained from taking governmental position because it did not want to work together with right-wing parties and was more comfortable in opposition where it played a pitiful role of governmental destabilization.
LSDWP was the main left-wing party at the time. But their success was hindered by other left-wing groups. Its main rival was the illegal Latvian Communist Party that operated underground, under direct orders from Moscow. The communists made many attempts to form legal radical leftist parties to enter parliament. And in 1928, 1931 these attempts were successful however they ended when 4 members of Radical workers and peasant fraction were excluded from parliament. But it was a sheer truth that LSDWP actually had contact with Soviet secret service and many of them rushed to support the occupation in 1940. Only two governments were formed together with LSDWP. The highest governmental seat they could achieve was honorary chairman of the parliament. Two socialdeomcrats Fridrihs Vesmanis from 1920 t0 1925 and Pauls Kalnins from 1925 to 1934 took the second highest post in Latvian Republic.
LFU gathered large support from farmer and middle class elite. Their main faces were Karlis Ulmanis, Arturs Alberings, Zigfrids Anna Meierovics and Hugo Celmins. Hugo Celmins was the longest serving prime minister in Latvia before the war. The LFU had great connections with big business and was the most wealthiest party at those times. From them Alberts Kviesis was the third president of Latvia.
The third main party was the Democratic Center (DC). They had a chance to form many governments. Within them the Gustavs Zemgals was second elected president of Latvia. DC politics were based on balancing therefore it was controversial and scandalous as they often got themselves caught in corruption scandals.
Latvian New landowner small landowner party was the fourth main party founded in 1924. Their leader Adolfs Blodnieks achieved prime minister seat in 4. Parliament and was a fierce rival for LFU.
An important political factor was the Latgalian parties. Even if Latgalians agreed on being part of Latvia, they’re wowed for autonomy and more political rights for them. The difference in language and religion made them against Latvian political parties and that sparked rivalry. One of the most visible Latgalian leaders was Fricis Trasuns. A load eccentric person Trasuns took part in many affairs about ownership of churches. But Latgalians were not united in their fight as they separated in many parties.
A common sight was many christian minded parties. Gustavs Reinhards led the Christian Union. He was a modern conservative, however also a staunch anti-Semite. He was also accused of supporting the Baltic German barons. Also important players were nationalist parties. National Alliance lead by Arveds Bergs was the main nationalist force in the parliament. Arveds Bergs was first who opposed the parliamentary system by claiming “The constitution is not working”. He however did not any steps to overthrow the parliament, instead he was who warned about the coming coup in 1934. His main mistake was the support of German ownership of the main Riga churches as the majority was to give churches to Latvians. National Alliance was too moderate for many radical nationalist organizations like Latvian National Club and Thundercross who engaged in antisocial behavior and sparked pro fascist agenda.
Latvia was home to many national minority groups. Germans, Jews, Russians and Poles were the most active of them in politics. Germans consisted only 2% of the population but could elect at least six deputies. This was due to their political unity. All German political parties always formed a single list for the elections. Their main leader was Paul Schiemann an intelligent liberal democrat a staunch defender of minority rights. He supported the Latvian state but was for minority autonomy within it. The Germans did not have any left wingers because the majority of Germans were from noble families that we’re strictly against socialism. Jews consisted 4% the population but were divided between right wingers, religious, Zionists and leftists. Even so they always elected at least 3 deputies. Most visible Jewish leaders were Modehai Dubin, Mordehai Nurok and Max Lazerson. Russians were the largest minority in Latvia a 10% of all Latvian citizens. Despite that they had very poor results in elections. Their parties were also divided and Russians were politically apathetic. Only 63% of Latvian Russians were literate so it was hard to get enough voter support. Plus since many them were simple workers they rather voted for LSDWP or supported communism. A minority of Russians were members of the old czarist elite or members of White guard exile. They were nationalist and monarchist minded who dreamed about the restoration of the Russian Empire. The Polish minority was also active but their results were not consistent and also had issues with politic division.
The party system in Latvia was liquidated by Karlis Ulmanis in 15, May 1934. He dissolved the parliament and installed himself as an authoritarian leader with his loyal government. Later he claimed himself as the president of Latvia. Ulmanis banned all political parties including his own Latvian Farmers Union. It may be so that later Ulmanis planed to make his own single state party, but such plans were never realized.
In the times of Latvian democracy every major party had its own weekly newspaper. They were not just only one number editions before elections but regular editions with large reader audience. Also non party newspapers were affected by political parties. Money and power was not strangers to each other. Corruption, rich party supporters and even support by foreign secret service was a common sight.
From today’s perspective not much has changed. There are still too many parties. However modern-day parties are not mass parties, in past LSDWP and LFU had more than 10 000 members. Today the party member count does not exceed 1000 member count. Parties are still unfree from business interests and corruption. Also the Latvian society never has fully trusted and supported the Latvian political system. However before the war the participation in elections was much higher from 80% to 70″% where today is only about 60%. The number of parties was also higher in the first years after 1992, but now only 13 parties take part in emergency elections. It’s mainly because of 5% barrier that prevents small time parties to enter parliament. Because of this during the last decade parliament is more stable and government crashes are more rare. But even with this in the last election the election outcome paralyzed the stability in the parliament when the prime minister was forced to take pressure from the main Latvian oligarch that resulted the emergency elections.
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Mednis, Imants, Antonēvičs Mednis.(2001) Politiskās partijas Latvijā. In book: Zīle, Ļubova (Ed.) Latvija divos laikposmos. 1918-1928 un 1991-2001. Riga: Latvijas Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds.