Two European previews

Two European countries hold general elections on Sunday. Here’s a quick guide to what to look for.

Latvia

The last Latvian election, held four years ago, resulted in a three-party coalition government between Unity (centre-right, 23 seats), the Union of Greens and Farmers (centrist-agrarian but also Green, 21 seats) and the National Alliance (conservative anti-immigrant but not far right, 17 seats).

That left the Social Democrats (also called “Harmony”) in opposition, even though they were actually the largest single party, with 24 of the 100 seats. The new government, with 61 seats, had a comfortable majority. Two small parties picked up the remaining 15 seats.

Voting is proportional (Sainte-Laguë) in five large constituencies, with a 5% national threshold, so those seat numbers reflect shares of the vote almost exactly. The three government parties had 58% of the vote between them.

The Social Democrats are centre-left but also pro-Russian, which is a sensitive issue in Latvia; that’s why a somewhat unwieldy coalition was formed to keep them out. It has survived the full four years, although not in quite its original form: Unity leader Laimdota Straujuma, Latvia’s first female prime minister, resigned at the end of 2015 and was replaced by Māris Kučinskis, the leader of the Union of Greens and Farmers.

Opinion polls suggest that the Social Democrats will hold their level of support and remain the largest party, and that the three governing parties will all lose votes (especially Unity). The two minor parties from last time have dropped from contention, but three new parties are set to enter parliament: the New Conservative Party (pretty much what it says), Who Owns the State? (a populist anti-immigrant party) and For! (liberal and pro-European).

The Social Democrats have been trying to shed their pro-Kremlin image, so it’s possible that this might finally be their chance to make it into government. The example of neighboring Estonia, where the pro-Russian Centre Party has held the prime ministership since 2016, gives encouragement to the idea of bringing the ethnic Russians within the tent.

Alternatively, For! and the New Conservatives would be obvious candidates for joining a re-formed centre-right coalition. But if (as seems likely) it would need four or even five parties to reach a parliamentary majority, there would be serious questions about its stability.

For more information, go to Latvian Public Broadcasting’s four-part review of the parties, which is remarkably opinionated for a state-owned broadcaster. Re:baltica also has a good guide, with slightly shakier English.

Bosnia & Herzegovina

While Latvia has tensions between ethnic Russians and native Latvians, when it comes to ethnic division, Bosnia & Herzegovina is in a league of its own. You can go to my report on the last election, in 2014, to read about the background and its peculiar constitutional structure.

Sunday’s election will choose a collective three-person presidency, one from each ethnic group (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs); a national parliament, elected by proportional representation in eight constituencies; two regional parliaments (Bosniak/Croat and Serb); and a president for the Serb region, elected in a single first-past-the-post ballot.

The Bosniak/Croat region has a parliamentary system, with a president elected by its parliament, who then appoints a prime minister – currently Fadil Novalić, a Bosniak nationalist. There are also cantonal governments in the Bosniak/Croat region, and one district, Brčko, that is independent of both regions.

Within each group, the main political division is between moderates and more hard-line nationalists. Since this structure was put in place following the Dayton agreement of 1995, nationalists have generally done better electorally – which is hardly surprising, since the structure offers no incentives to reach outside one’s own ethnic group.

Last time around, Bosniak and Croat nationalists were elected to the presidency, but the Serb representative was a moderate, Mladen Ivanić, who narrowly beat the nationalist Željka Cvijanović. The presidency of the Serb region, however, narrowly went the other way, with nationalist Milorad Dodik re-elected by less than 7,000 votes.

The national parliament, as you might expect, is a patchwork of competing groups, with no stable majority. But it any case it lacks what we would usually call responsible government; the prime minister cannot choose the ministers, who are allocated (of course) on an ethnic basis.

Crazy as this structure is, it’s better than having the citizens killing one another. As a measure to end a civil war, it made sense. The problem is that while everyone can see it has now outlived its usefulness, there is no obvious pathway toward change.

And so the previews of the election all have a pessimistic sameness about them: here’s the Guardian, for example; here’s Balkan Insight, and here’s Euronews. None of them suggest that anything will happen this time to offer a way forward.

On the other hand, things could be worse – much worse. It’s not that long since they were.

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