• Elections in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland

  • By Krzysztof Pilawski , Holger Politt | 17 Nov 14 | Posted under: Central and Eastern Europe , Elections
  • Taken together, the three Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania occupy an area about half the size of Germany. Poland, by contrast, is one of the largest EU member countries.

    In other respects too, Poland is very different from the three Baltic states. Unlike Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which have to a large degree already experienced the advantages and disadvantages of modern service­oriented societies, Poland still has a mixed economic structure. It has a disproportionately high share of agriculture and a still significant mining sector (particularly hard coal, brown coal, and copper), but also heavy industry and processing industries are particularly important. Poland is now the location for a considerable part of the supply industry for the German economy.

    These briefly listed factors generated different effects during the serious crisis years from 2008 to 2010. While Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia suffered a collapse of their GDPs in a double-digit range, Poland was the only large country in the EU which enjoyed continued economic growth during this period, albeit barely more than one per cent.

    The same neoliberal economic spirit dominates in all four countries and the reasons for the important difference referred to here can be attributed to a significant degree to the respective economic structures. Nonetheless, particularly hard coal mining and heavy industry regularly come under serious pressure in Poland; currently, this is particularly true of coal, since production costs cannot stand up to the competition of cheaper imported coal. While Poland is still facing thoroughgoing restructuring processes in some important sectors of the economy and in certain regions, this process has largely been concluded in the three Baltic states. In these countries, there is no industrial work force of any significant size.

    All four countries share a common socialist history which lasted from 1945 until 1989, or 1991 in the Baltic states. On the other hand, Poland was not a Republic of the Soviet Union, but rather a People’s Republic in its own right. It maintained a significant, if restricted, degree of national sovereignty.

    Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, on the other hand, were Soviet Republics, in which both Russian and the respective national languages were used. In the Baltic Soviet Republics the push by political elites for complete national independence was an important factor in the progressive disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991. Here, important traditions in the history narratives of the countries intersect: the deep systemic transformation after 1989 is seen as an upheaval and a new departure in which the decades of Soviet rule or hegemony could be removed, and the recourse or reconnection to the respective nation-state developments prior to the Second World War became possible once again.

    At the European level, it sometimes appears that Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are harmoniously in the same historic-narrative boat. Only a deeper examination will reveal differences which should not be underestimated.

    However, that does not change the fact that these four countries generally speak with one voice with regard to issues of the EU’s eastern policy, that is, policy towards Belarus, Ukraine, and especially Russia. Among the 28 EU member countries, that fact is hard to overlook. All four of them have long historic experience with direct Russian rule, which lasted between one hundred and two hundred years.

    Of course, this somewhat remote past is not the central issue for EU membership, but nonetheless deserves mention here, since it helps explain situations in which these countries frequently adopt common positions not necessarily shared by other member countries. Of course, historical narratives are largely fed within the boundaries of nation-states, but at the EU level, too, attempts are continually being made to obtain grist for one’s own mill by citing these contexts.

    All four countries border directly on Russia, although in the cases of Lithuania and Poland, this involves only the Kaliningrad Region, a Russian exclave within EU territory. The only other EU country with a direct border with Russia is Finland, which, however, has historic experiences of a specific relationship with Russia based on compromise and good neighbourliness.

    Unlike Finland, the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are NATO members, as is Poland. All four countries in unison see this membership as an important guarantee of their security and of their national independence. This attitude gained in significance at the time of the European parliamentary elections due to Russian actions in Crimea and other areas of eastern Ukraine.

    Even if such fears are certainly also present in Poland, the situation there is still considerably different from that in the Baltic states, where there are significant Russian or Russian-speaking minorities. This is especially the case in Latvia and Estonia, where these groups constitute more than one third of the resident populations. Indeed, these two countries are split societies with respect to many fundamental issues of domestic and foreign policy. This fact is, however, only partially reflected in the landscape of political parties. Recently, moderate forces within the Russian-speaking one third of their populations have in both countries been more successful than radical forces.

    Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has justified the actions he took in March 2014 in Crimea with the claimed need to protect the Russian population, without even recognising the far-reaching autonomy stipulations that had already existed there. In the capitals of the three Baltic states, this was perceived as a bellwether action. Moscow has long complained about the situation of the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states, often justifiably. The path of gradual acculturation of the minorities to the majority societies, which has been more or less approvingly accepted by the EU, has been only partially successful. One expression of that fact is that in connection with the crisis in the Ukraine, ever more young Russians in the Baltic states have accepted Moscow’s offer of Russian citizenship. When Putin thus states that Russia’s interests are always affected wherever Russians live, he is referring to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

    All these factors were significant for the European parliamentary election in May 2014, even though it was not a polarising plebiscite on any of the currently relevant issues. What was at stake here was the composition of a Parliament for which each country could only elect a certain number of representatives.

    The four countries harbour ever fewer illusions about the EU Parliament’s possibilities for affecting current EU policy, which is one of the reasons why electoral participation was lower there than in comparable nationwide elections. This is also true elsewhere, however, so it should not give cause for any hasty interpretation that this expresses disillusionment with the EU.

    Acceptance figures for EU membership are exceptionally high in Poland, a fact which has not changed, and this is true, too, among ethnic Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. Surveys of the entire populations of these countries, however, also include the widespread, currently increasingly sceptical views of the Russian minorities.



    Elections for the European Parliament were dominated by domestic policy issues, and also by the current conflicts in Ukraine and particularly the behaviour of Moscow in that regard. As a result, Estonia’s membership in the European Union and NATO received increasing attention. Unlike 2009, there were no major surprises with regard to other domestic policy constellations in the 2014 election. However, electoral participation was only 36.6 per cent (2009: 43.2 per cent) and thus failed to meet expectations.

    The six seats elected by Estonians were distributed as follows:

    • the liberal Reform Party: 24.3 per cent, two seats, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE);
    • the left-liberal Centre Party: 22.3 per cent, one seat, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE);
    • the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union: 13.9 per cent, one seat, the European People’s Party (EPP – Christian Democrats);
    • The Social Democrats: 13.6 per cent, one seat, Progressive Alliance of Social Democrats (S&D);
    • The independent candidate Indrek Tarand: 13.2 per cent, one seat, joined the Greens/European Free Alliance group (The Greens/EFA).

    The Centre Party has traditionally been an important representative of the interests of the Russian minority in Estonia and has a politically moderate,
    left-liberal orientation with a social democratic accent, so that some observers consider it to be Estonia’s real social democratic party. However, in spite of its consistently good election results, it has never been accepted into a governing coalition. In this election too, it took second place, just behind the liberals. The mayor of Tallinn is a Centre Party member.

    Indrek Tarand, by profession a TV journalist originally elected to the European Parliament in 2009, once again won his seat, standing on a one­man list. Five years ago, he achieved 25 per cent, which would have been enough to give him two seats in the European Parliament, a fact which was widely viewed as a slap in the face for the other parties. This time, he was able to retain his seat in spite of attracting significantly fewer votes.



    In Latvia, the continuing conflict in Ukraine, and especially Moscow’s behaviour, had a greater effect on the elections than domestic factors. That, too, explains why the governing conservatives were able to win half of the seats allotted to Latvia. A total of five Latvian parties will be represented in the European Parliament. Voter participation, amounting to only 30 per cent, was far below expectations.

    Of the eight Latvian seats, the conservative party Unity won four, with 46.2 per cent of the votes. It is a member of the European People‘s Party group. The other four successful parties, which each won one seat, were: the National Alliance ‘All for Latvia!’ (14.2 per cent, European Conservatives and Reformists, the right-wing conservatives); the social-democratic party Harmony (13 per cent, Progressive Alliance of Social Democrats group); the Union of Greens and Farmers (8.3 per cent, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, right-wing populists), and the Latvian Russian Union (6.4 per cent; Greens/Free European Alliance group).

    Former Premier Valdis Dombrovskis (2009-2013) will join the Parliament at the head of the conservatives. The country’s delegation includes two ethnic Russians, representing the parties Harmony and the Russian Union.

    The Socialist Party founded by former MEP Alfred Rubiks failed to win a seat, with considerably less than 5 per cent of the votes. In 2009, Rubiks had been elected to the EP on the Harmony ticket, and had sat with the GUE/NGL group.



    Along with domestic issues, the Ukraine crisis was a major issue in Lithuania. Broad sections of the public saw it as a severe burden on bilateral relations with Russia. In addition the relationship with Belarus is relatively close for historical reasons. This is, on the one hand, subject to additional strains due to Russia’s action in Ukraine, but, on the other hand, opens up new lines of communication regarding issues vital to both countries.

    Voter participation was 47 per cent, higher than in 2009, when only 20.5 per cent of voters went to the polls. One important reason for that was the runoff in the presidential election which was held on the same day.

    The eleven Lithuanian seats were distributed as follows:

              The conservative Homeland Union: 17.4 per cent, two seats, EPP;

              the Social Democrats: 17.3 per cent, two seats, S&D;

              the Liberals: 16.5 per cent, two seats, ALDE;

              the nationalistic Order and Justice Party: 14.3 per cent, two seats, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD);

              the Labour Party: 12.8 per cent, one seat, ALDE;

              the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania: 8 per cent, one seat, European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR);

              the Alliance of Peasants and Greens: 6.6 per cent, one seat, The Greens/EFA.

    Lithuania’s MEPs include one ethnic Russian, Victor Uspaskich, founder of the Labour Party. The party has dropped far behind its former
    successful results, when it garnered up to 30 per cent of the votes and was the country’s strongest party. Valdemar Tomaševski, an ethnic Pole, represents the Polish list.

    Overview of the Baltic states

    Taken as a whole, the seats of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania break down as follows between the party groups in the European Parliament: With seven seats, the European People’s Party is the strongest group, followed by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, with six seats, the Progressive Alliance of Social Democrats with four, the Greens/Free European Alliance and the Europe for Freedom and Direct Democracy group with three each, and finally the European Conservatives and Reformists group with two seats. Only the European People’s Party, the Social Democrats and the Greens won seats in all three countries.

    The electoral mood emerging from these results is clearly liberal­conservative, while social democratic and green positions are considerably weaker. National conservative and patriotic positions are a factor not to be underestimated in Latvia and Lithuania.



    Since regular parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for next year, the elections for the European Parliament was seen by Polish parties as a welcome test of the mood of the country, permitting them to prepare for the upcoming electoral campaigns in a timely manner. However, the electorate did not completely play along, providing a voter participation rate of only 23 per cent, which was surprisingly low.

    The current crisis in Ukraine did not affect that, although it has been followed with great interest by the Polish public. However, since all important parties took fairly similar positions here, the hot domestic policy issues were more important in determining the decisions of the voters.

    The two major parties, which have been at each other’s throats for almost ten years now, crossed the finishing line virtually neck-and-neck. Here, the current crisis in Ukraine may have helped the ruling liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO). At any rate, the national-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) missed its goal of at long last becoming the country’s strongest party again. Trailing far behind were the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the Polish People‘s Party (a farmers’ party), and the right-wing populist Congress of the New Right (KNP).

    Poland’s 52 seats were distributed as follows: the liberal conservative PO (EPP) won 32.1 per cent of the votes, with nineteen seats. The nationalconservative PiS (ECR) was close behind with 31.8 per cent and also with nineteen seats. The SLD (S&D) won 9.4 per cent, with five seats. The KNP got 9.1 per cent with four seats, and the farmers’ party 6.8 per cent with four seats.

    Significant was the failure of the left-liberal list Europe Plus, founded by Janusz Palikot and Aleksander Kwaśniewski, which presented itself as an alternative both to the governing PO and to the left-democratic SLD. This is a clear warning to Palikot, whose list will have to fight hard to return to the Polish parliament in 2015.

    In the national-conservative spectrum, the unquestioned leadership of the PiS has been reinforced, because other conservative lists failed to meet the 5 per cent threshold, and have since hinted that they plan to approach the PiS with regard to the upcoming elections. A joint national-conservative list would have won no less than 40 per cent of the votes.

    One disappointment is the success of the right-wing populist Congress of the New Right, headed by Janusz Korwin-Mikke. This list achieved surprisingly good results, winning four seats in the EP. Korwin-Mikke is a dyed-in-the-wool EU opponent who makes no bones about his rejection of ‘European socialism’. On the Ukrainian question, he considers Moscow’s actions legitimate, since, for example in Crimea, it was able to implement the right of national self-determination.

    translated by Phil Hill

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