Talks in Latvia still wide open

  • 2004-11-17
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Since the government's unexpected fall on Oct. 28 and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga's decision to put off talks on forming a new coalition at the Riga Castle until after this week's holiday, it is still unclear not only who may become Latvia's next prime minister but which combination of parties will make up the new government.

Currently there are five parties involved in the negotiation process: Latvia's First Party, the Greens and Farmers Union, the People's Party, For Fatherland and Freedom, and New Era. (Three independent members are also taking part in talks). Together they comprise 80 of Parliament's 100 votes, yet it is highly unlikely that the next coalition would feature them all, since a government of that size - with the myriad strong personalities involved - would likely be unstable, and voting discipline would become problematic.

Talks between many of the larger parties have repeatedly been held. The latest one took place on Nov. 17, between right-wing parties New Era and the People's Party, and later between Latvia's First Party and New Era. The latter two were originally partners in the previous government that resigned in February but have been antagonistic toward one another in recent months.

The two biggest parties, New Era and the People's Party, which together would make up 44 seats, have been toying around with forming a new government for months although they ultimately were unable to do so. Relations between the two have never been warm.

Indeed, New Era was elected in October 2002 on a platform of opposition to the People's Party, and last week former Culture Minister Inguna Ribena of New Era angrily denounced the current one, Helena Demakova of the People?s Party in Parliament.

Still, most observers predict that the next government will contain both these parties since it offers a fresh combination of political forces. Experience counts in coalition building, and the People's Party and For Fatherland and Freedom have been around the longest, though the latter lost some of its best politicians to the European Parliament.

The question of who will be the next prime minister is particularly crucial. Since New Era has already led one government, and the People's Party has apparently angered the president with its decision to topple the coalition just as she was heading to Rome to sign the European Constitution, many have speculated that the next prime minister could come from one of the smaller parties.

"If the People's Party and New Era cannot find common ground, than theoretically Latvia?s First Party could take the position of prime minister," political analyst Karlis Streips told The Baltic Times. Latvia's First Party has 14 seats in Parliament.

Where the president's sentiments lie is anyone's guess. Some have suggested that her choice may be surprisingly similar to the one she made earlier this year when she chose Emsis, who was plucked from almost nowhere to lead the country.

"The president is keeping her cards close to her chest. It's difficult to know just who she favors. What she will be looking for is a government that can continue on until autumn 2006," Steips added. "Latvian politics is rarely about the issues."

With 12 votes, the Greens and Farmers will likely be included in the next coalition, since they have expressed apathy over the choice for prime minister. Prime Minister Indulis Emsis said recently on Latvian radio that his position could next be taken up by Aigars Kalvitis of the People?s Party or possibly even his deputy, Ainars Slesers of Latvia's First Party. Emsis called Slesers "a constructive partner" and someone who did not "go behind my back to push an idea."

Emsis added that the next prime minister would neither come from his party nor New Era, since both have already had the chance to lead a government.

In an interview with Latvijas Avize, Ainars Slesers suggested that he could do a fine job leading the government, and that his life experience more than adequately makes up for his lack of higher education.

Maris Gulbis, who recently left New Era and remains one of three unaligned MPs, said in an interview with the Russian language tabloid Vesti Segodnya that the whole country was waiting for a big surprise, and an unexpected candidate for PM could appear.

New Era, Parliament?s largest faction with 24 seats, has said it would work with any prime minister the president chooses. They even claimed - at least publicly - that they would work with Latvia's First Party. Neverthless, a New Era prime minister was also not ruled out. Candidates mentioned include Valdis Dombrovskis, currently an MEP, former Prime Minister Einars Repse and current parliamentary faction head Krisjanis Karins.

For Fatherland and Freedom faction head Maris Grinblats said he favored Karins. A government with these two allies and the People?s Party would give the coalition 51 votes.

Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks of the People's Party has said that the prime minister should come from one of the two largest parties and that, since New Era already had its chance to lead, now it was the People's Party's turn.

Emsis' government collapsed when the People's Party decided to vote down the 2005 budget despite the fact that its own party controlled the Finance Ministry and was largely responsible for compilation of the budget. According to Latvia's constitution, a vote against the budget counts as a vote of no-confidence in the government. This was the first time a government has been dissolved due to a budgetary decision.

Latvia's next government will be the 11th in as many years.