On 22 January 2014, two months after the resignation of prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, parliament approved a new government under the leadership of Laimdota Straujuma, the country’s first female prime minister. While the latter fact has made international headlines and Straujuma’s inauguration brings an end to the difficult process of finding a new government leader, the new government is not necessarily an achievement for the coalition parties, but rather a (small) victory for the president.
After the resignation of prime minister Dombrovskis over the tragedy caused by the collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga, president Andris Bērziņš took a suprisingly active approach when it came to forming a new government (see also my previous post on this blog from 11 December 2013), Until early January, president Bērziņš declined to nominate any of the candidates proposed by the four centre-right parties poised to form a new coalition, while all candidates proposed by him declined to take on the job.
In the end, president and parties agreed on the nomination of Laimdota Straujuma, a 61 year-old career civil servant who – after having served in various ministries at secretary of state/deputy minister level had headed the ministry of agriculture in the last Dombrovskis government since 2011. Having not been affiliated with a political party before (her ministerial nomination had been made on the ticket of prime minister Dombrovski’s ‘Unity’ party), she only joined Unity on 5 January, two days before her nomination.
Straujuma is Latvia’s first female head of government but not the country’s first female political leader – from 07/1999 to 07/2007 Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga served as president and was the first elected female head of state in the region. Freiberga – a former professor of psychology and semiotics at the University of Montreal – was instrumental in Latvia’s EU and NATO accession and remained a non-partisan during both of her terms in office. While the latter was an advantage for her as president, Straujuma will likely be disadvantaged by her lack of a long-standing party affiliation, as she will be without clear authority in the coalition’s largest party. While her previous positions will have provided her with an in-depth understanding of Latvia-EU relations (very important given the country’s recent adoption of the Euro) and she was one of the better-rated members of the previous government, her influence in the coalition will still be very limited. Yet as parties have agreed not to amend the budget for 2014 (which would only have been possible in the summer), there is only very little room for manoeuvre for Straujuma and her government anyway.
Overall, the formation of the government appears to be a victory for the president (as well as his party, the Union of Greens and Farmers) and evidence that his unusually active approach paid off. Even though president Bērziņš initially rejected the idea of a purely technocratic government, a government under the leadership of quasi-technocrat Straujuma has several advantages for him. First and foremost, in a situation where the prime minister has less authority over the coalition parties, the president’s influence automatically increases. Furthermore, by not pushing for a purely technocratic government, the previous coalition parties remain in power and are not cut off from the spoils of office. Keeping a good relationship with all centre-right parties is instrumental for Bērziņš in securing his re-election. Last, the new government now includes Bērziņš’ own party whose votes are necessary to secure a majority in the assembly which increases the president’s leverage over the coalition.
Of course, the new coalition also has benefits for the other parties: Straujuma is a largely uncontroversial figure who will potentially mitigate some of the public dissatisfaction with the previous government’s policies which will be carried out until the general election in October 2014. At the same time, prominent party politicians can take a step back from the first line of politics while remaining in office (furthermore, in contrast to Dombrovskis III, they are now also more slightly adequately rewarded in terms of portfolios).
Overall, Straujuma’s new government consists of 14 cabinet members (prime minister + 13 cabinet ministers), seven of which served in the Dombrovskis III cabinet (except for Straujuma all in the same positions). There are two non-partisan cabinet members, yet these are clearly linked to Unity and the National Alliance, respectively, and thus not the result of presidential intervention. The Reform Party of former president Valdis Zatlers is slightly underrepresented despite having the second largest seat share, yet take the high-profile ministries of foreign affairs, economics, and interior. In addition to prime minister Straujuma, there are four other female cabinet members (which is an increase by two compared to Dombrovskis III); the average age is 47.9 years.
Composition of Straujuma I
Prime Minister: Laimdota Straujuma (Unity, female, 63)*
Minister for Defence: Raimonds Vējonis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 48)
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Edgars Rinkēvičs (Reform Party, male, 40)*
Minister for Economics: Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis (Reform Party, male, 36)
Minister for Finance: Andris Vilks (Unity, male, 50)*
Minister for the Interior: Rihards Kozlovskis (Reform Party, male, 44)*
Minister for Education and Science: Ina Druviete (Unity, female, 55)
Minister for Culture: Dace Melbārde (independent [National Alliance], female, 42)*
Minister for Welfare: Uldis Augulis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 41)
Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development: Einārs Cilinskis (National Alliance, male, 50)
Minister for Transport: Anrijs Matīss (independent [Unity], male, 40)*
Minister for Justice: Baiba Broka (National Alliance, female, 38)
Minister for Health: Ingrīda Circene (Unity, female, 57)*
Minister for Agriculture: Jānis Dūklavs (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 61)
(*= member of previous government; except for Laimdota Straujuma all with same portfolio)