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Daunis Auers

May 28th, 2024

Latvia: the 2024 European Parliament elections – all eyes on Krišjānis Kariņš?

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Daunis Auers

May 28th, 2024

Latvia: the 2024 European Parliament elections – all eyes on Krišjānis Kariņš?

0 comments | 8 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Latvia will hold its European Parliament election on 8 June. Daunis Auers writes the campaign has been dominated by a string of scandals that have hit the ruling New Unity alliance.

LSE European Parliament Elections banner

This article is part of a series on the 2024 European Parliament elections. The EUROPP blog will also be co-hosting a panel discussion on the elections at LSE on 6 June.

In early May 2024 Latvia celebrated two decades of membership in the European Union. There was much debate on the economic benefits of access to the single market as well as the structural and cohesion funds that have remade Latvia’s core infrastructure, rural areas and urban environment.

At the same time there was also some rueful discussion on why Latvia significantly lags economically behind its Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania. Latvia’s ageing but still influential former President Vaira Vīķe Freiberga, who has positioned herself as the moral conscience of the nation, went so far as to state that without the EU, Latvia would have gone the way of Belarus.

Instead, Latvia is readying for its fifth European Parliament election on 8 June. This election was expected to be dominated by the war in Ukraine. After all, Latvia has a 284-kilometre border with Russia as well as a 173-kilometre border with Belarus and has been the target of direct and indirect military, cyber and hybrid threats from Russia since regaining sovereign independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991.

Kariņš’ plans derailed

However, much of the media’s attention has instead focused on the dominant New Unity (JV, EPP Group) party, which has been hit by a string of scandals that are likely to hit its popularity, and share of seats, in the European Parliament election as well as the likely choice of European Commissioner following the vote.

The biggest scandal centred around Krišjānis Kariņš, who became the first Prime Minister in Latvia’s history to serve a full four-year term of office in October 2022. His governing JV party then swept to victory in the October 2022 parliamentary election and returned Kariņš to the Prime Minister’s office at the head of a new three-party governing coalition.

In June 2023 Kariņš’ favoured candidate for President, JV’s long-serving Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvics, was elected to the post by Latvia’s parliament. Then a few months later Kariņš swapped the Prime Minister post for the Foreign Minister position to leverage his close relationship with his successor as Prime Minister, Evika Siliņa (JV), to seal the nomination for the Latvian European Commissioner post.

However, Latvia’s current long-serving Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis (JV) still hoped to be reappointed for a third term, frequently citing his influence as the effective current number two in the European Commission’s hierarchy (he holds the influential Executive Vice President of the European Commission for An Economy that Works for People position and is also European Commissioner for Trade).

However, Kariņš’ European plans began to crumble in November 2023 as media reports on his extensive use of private jets began to appear. A State Auditor’s report, stating that many of the flights were unlawful and a waste of taxpayers’ money, forced Kariņš’ resignation.

Although he returned to parliament and enthusiastically threw himself into European political campaigning, he is a much-reduced figure. Dombrovskis is now expected to be renominated for the Latvian Commissioner’s post, despite other JV scandals involving unproven allegations of illicit party financing and attempts to influence election results which have been vigorously denied by party officials.

Russia’s war on Ukraine

JV’s struggles have provided competing parties with plenty of campaign material. However, the war in Ukraine has impacted the election. First, Latvia’s border with Russia has not been closed and both people and goods have continued to flow in both directions.

A recent investigation found that manganese ore has continued to move through Latvian ports and into Russia, where it has been used in the production of military equipment. Latvia is also the biggest whisky supplier to Russia while Russian grain has also continued to move through Latvian ports. This has raised questions about the EU’s trade and sanctions policies.

Second, similarly to other European countries, Latvia’s farmers took to the streets at the start of the year to protest against the EU’s Green Deal as well as some Latvia specific demands such as reducing VAT to 5% for fruits and vegetables “specific to Latvian agriculture”. As a result, campaigning parties have put the defence of Latvia’s farmers and rural regions at the heart of party programmes.

Third, the two years since the start of the war have also seen Latvia undertake an intensive and far-reaching programme of de-Russification and de-Sovietisation. Russian-speaking public schools are being phased out, the Riga municipality has renamed the Pushkin Lyceum as the Riga Broce Lyceum (after the enlightenment era Baltic German Johann Christof Broce), renamed Pushkin Street and removed a Pushkin statue from a central Riga park.

The Conservatives Party (KP) bet on the publics’ support for de-russification and named Liāna Langa, a divisive Latvian author who has spearheaded the de-Russification movement in Latvia for the last two years, as its leading candidate in the European Parliament elections in 2024. The liberal For! (Renew Europe) party responded to the conflict by naming Ivanna Voločija, a Ukrainian who also holds Belgian citizenship, as its lead candidate.

At the same time, Tatjana Ždanoka (Latvia’s Russian Union, LKS), one of Latvia’s longest serving MEPs, has been accused of being a Russian agent following a leak of her private email correspondence to Latvian journalists, and has been barred from standing in the election. Pro-Russian speaker parties, such as Harmony Social Democracy (SSD, S&D group), have been sending coded messages of support for Russia to its Russian-speaking electorate, through slogans such as “For Peace and Security” (standing for “peace” is interpreted as supporting Russia in Latvia).

Other salient EU-related issues include securing financing for the fast-escalating costs of the Rail Baltic project (a north-south railway axis which will link the Baltic states and Poland through a new greenfield European gauge rail line), the EU’s new Defence Industrial Strategy and future enlargement (to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia).

Latest polling

Trust in the European Parliament (and in the EU in general) is significantly higher in Latvia than trust in domestic institutions. Latvians have tended to support mature, experienced politicians in European elections, generally believing that they are best placed to support diffuse Latvian national interests.

As a result, it is no surprise that the National Alliance (NA, European Conservatives and Reformists Group), whose campaign is led by a Vice-
President of the European Parliament, Roberts Zīle (an MEP since 2004), JV and SSD (both with equally experienced line-ups of candidates) lead the polling. The Progressives Party (PRO, Greens/EFA), the populist Latvia First Party (LPV) and the rural-conservative United List (AS) are also polling around the 5% barrier needed to win seats in the European Parliament.

Impact on domestic politics

All eyes will be on the performance of JV’s Kariņš in the election. If he fares badly and is not elected to the European Parliament, or appointed to the Commission, he might take offence at the lack of political support from his party and contemplate breaking away from JV. Some JV parliamentary deputies may be tempted to follow him and leave the government with a wafer-thin parliamentary majority.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Union

About the author

Daunis Auers

Daunis Auers is a Professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the University of Latvia.

Posted In: 2024 EP Elections | Elections | Politics

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