RIGA - In a stunning surprise, right-wing parties took the European Parliament elections by storm, grabbing seven out of Latvia's nine seats and signaling a significant shift to the right by many voters disgruntled with the current centrist ruling coalition.
For Fatherland and Freedom, a party that barely broke the 5 percent barrier in the October 2002 parliamentary election, gathered nearly a third of the June 12 vote, bestowing the nationalists with four seats in Europe's lawmaking body.
Their allies in opposition, New Era, mustered almost 20 percent of the vote, which will give the country's most popular party, judging by pre-election polls, two seats.
Meanwhile, the Greens and Farmers Union, to which Prime Minister Indulis Emsis and Parliamentary Speaker Ingrida Udre belong, and Latvia's First Party, both of which are in the ruling coalition, did not get a single seat. The third coalition member, the right-wing People's Party, only managed one.
New Era and For Fatherland and Freedom, which had called for a vote of no-confidence in the coalition before the vote, immediately used the success to call into question the government's integrity. New Era leader Einars Repse even called for Emsis to step down.
Emsis, however, was undaunted by his party's poor electoral turnout and instead said the election had been positive.
"The voters have wanted us to stay here in our place. People usually send the opposition to Europe, as the work is here," he was quoted as saying.
Many analysts and insiders ascribed For Fatherland and Freedom's success to its tactic of putting high-profile names at the top of its party lists.
"This was not a huge surprise for us because we used high-profile personalities, and most of the other parties did not," Guntars Krasts, head of the European Affairs Committee in Parliament, told The Baltic Times.
If New Era had put former Prime Minister Repse on its list, or if People's Party had included three-time former PM Andris Skele in its, both parties probably would have done better, Krasts added.
The other surprise was that Latvia's Way, a liberal party that had been in power for nearly a decade but failed to make it into the current Parliament, managed to take one seat.
The last seat went to the left-wing For Human Rights in a United Latvia, a party that bills itself as the defender of minority rights. The party is almost certain to be represented by the controversial Tatyana Zdanoka, who had been banned from Parliament for openly working against Latvian independence in 1991.
Zdanoka is registered to sit with the Green Party in Europarliament, although it is unclear why she chose the Greens since her past platforms have focused on minority rights and not the environment.
It remains unclear whether the European Greens would accept her.
Also, the fact that Zdanoka's party beat out the more moderate National Harmony Party, which also lobbies minority issues, could lead to further estrangement between Latvians and Russians.
Among analysts, opinion was divided whether the election results amounted to voter dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition.
"I don't think that it is necessarily true," political analyst Karlis Streips said. "I suspect it's a reaction to the belief that the left-wing would take seats at the European Parliament, so they voted for the party that would stop them."
However, in a rare front-page editorial in the daily Diena, the paper drew an unambiguous link between the leftists and the current governing coalition, stating that it was the government's left-leaning tendencies that led to the electoral outcome.
Turnout was a dismal 41 percent - compared over 70 percent in the last parliamentary election - though above-average compared with the rest of the new EU states. The blame for that, analysts said, lay mostly with low-profile candidates, meager allocations for campaign spending, uncertainty of what these elections mean and a new voting system that confused voters.
Whereas Latvians can normally vote anywhere, having a stamp in their passport to confirm participation, this time they could vote only in precincts where they are registered residents. This may have contributed to a low turnout.
"It absolutely had an affect. There was no lack of information for anyone not to dumb or lazy to look for it," Streips said.
Many Latvians do not live at the area they are registered in, and if students from the countryside were studying in Riga, they had to return home in order to cast their EP ballot.