Topsy-turvy coalition talks forge fragile right-wing peace

  • 2004-12-01
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Negotiations over forming a new government in Latvia took a number of surprise twists this week, with perhaps the greatest coming late on Nov. 30 when For Fatherland and Freedom, the reputed bulwark of nationalist politics, voted to join the coalition of Aigars Kalvitis without its right-wing partner New Era.

The decision, supported by a vote of 30 for and 12 against among For Fatherland and Freedom members, came after repeated claims by the party that it could never join a coalition that included the likes of Latvia's First Party.

The change-of-heart propelled support for Kalvitis' proposed government over the 50-seat threshold in Parliament. For Fatherland and Freedom's seven votes will join the 20 belonging to the People's Party, 14 to Latvia's First Party and 12 to the Greens and Farmers Union.

Then, later that night, it was announced that New Era would join the coalition after all once Kalvitis agreed to give the country's largest party control over the Defense Ministry.

If the agreement goes ahead, Latvia will have a large, five-member coalition controlling 77 seats in the 100-seat Parliament. In addition, three independents were reportedly considering joining forces with the new government.

Though final details of the agreement had yet to emerge by the morning of Dec. 1 when The Baltic Times went to press, it was announced that Kalvitis would present his Cabinet to Parliament and propose a vote by as early as Dec. 2.

With the 2005 budget frozen after its first reading and EU funds hanging in the balance, the urgency of getting the Cabinet up and running was apparent to all.

Kalvitis had proposed to the Cabinet New Era chief Einars Repse as defense minister, and Andris Skele, a three-time prime minister and the influential figure behind the People's Party, in the Health Ministry.

However, on Nov. 29, after a meeting with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Kalvitis suddenly announced that Repse would not be allowed to head the Defense Ministry, causing New Era, the country's most popular, to pull out of the coalition. The motivation for the abrupt change was unclear at first, with Kalvitis only saying Repse and Skele were "too controversial."

Repse said that the decision to exclude him personally from the Cabinet originated in the president's office and that Kalvitis had confided this fact in a meeting with New Era officials.

However, Vike-Freiberga's spokeswoman denied the possibility. "The President is not the one who will say, 'You have to take someone out of your Cabinet,'" Aiva Rozenberga said.

The sudden rift between the two largest parties, which have never really seen eye-to-eye, left many dismayed. Initially, Kalvitis said that he could not make his reasons public, but later he claimed it was because Respe had refused to sign a coalition agreement and had promised to battle against the forces of darkness in the coalition. Repse's insistence that Cabinet meetings be televised, a practice he set into motion in 2002 as prime minister, also made many politicians feel uncomfortable.

The PM-designate also alluded to a "ladder-incident" involving Repse during a visit abroad, where the former PM allegedly climbed to the top of a Nordic embassy.

Repse wasted no time in blasting Kalvitis.

"I will not even comment on the argumentation given by Kalvitis. Let that remain on his own conscience. Yesterday he said nothing of the likes. Yesterday he claimed that his decision was based on distinct directions given by the president, yet the president has now denied this, meaning that the person who may possibly become the next prime minister is simply lying and turning the process of forming a government into a complete farce," he said.

Despite New Era's indignation, it appeared that a coalition deal would be struck. Kalvitis' promise to give For Fatherland and Freedom the Economy and Justice ministries, in addition to the Regional Development portfolio, apparently tipped the scales.

Skele, the founder of the People's Party, had until recently said he was no longer participating in politics. Many observers were waiting to see how Skele and Repse, two former PM's with strong personalities and some would say an equally strong dislike of one another, would work together in the same government. Others wondered if Skele's candidacy was merely a ruse put forth in order to justify the removal of Repse.

"The execution by the People's Party was highly despicable and an amateurish trick," political scientist Janis Ikstens said. "Skele has been linked to some of the most scandalous affairs in Latvian history," he added.

The proposal to bring Skele on board was even condemned by the local branch of Transparency International, Delna, which termed the appointment of Skele "political corruption." Delna also cited his role in a number of scandals, including the ongoing investigation into the introduction of digital television.