DAUGAVPILS - For many Latvians the upcoming municipal elections in Daugavpils will go by unnoticed. However, as any visitor to the eastern city will see, the electoral stakes in Latvia's second largest are as high as ever before. Because whoever wins will control over the debt ridden city and will wield partial control over large infusions of tens of millions of euros in EU funds over the next four years.
Fourteen parties will fight it out for 15 seats in the local City Council, with the frontrunners Latgales Gaisma (Latgale's Light), a local populist party, Latvia's First Party and Latvia's Way poised to gain the largest share.
Currently the council is headed by Rita Strode of Latvia's Way, a centrist party that for years ruled the roost on the national level, but much of the party's civic support is due to an alliance with the Daugavpils City Party.
To be sure, in Daugavpils party affiliation is often a matter of convenience rather than principle. For many voters it's the politicians' personality that counts.
"Parties matter only in Riga 's personalities are far more important," political scientist Janis Ikstens said.
This trend is strengthened by the fact that residents of the country's eastern region, which is dominated by ethnic Russians and other minorities, feel ignored by the government in Riga. Even in the national press few articles about Daugavpils make it to the pages. This dearth of information is due in part to Daugavpils' "remote location, and that the city is heavily dominated by Slavic minorities," according to Ikstens.
Many observers in Daugavpils who spoke to The Baltic Times on condition of anonymity, point to media ownership as a major determining factor in electoral success. Most of the local print media and television and radio stations are owned by two local economic groups, they said, while other economic entities lurk in the shadows.
One of these groups is Dautkom, a computer and cable television company that also owns the local paper Seichas. It was the recipient of 189,000 lats (270,000 euros) in city money from Mayor Strode that ultimately had to be returned after a decision by the Supreme Court, Eigims said. The money was allegedly earmarked for a water purification system, but according to Strode's rival and former Mayor Rihards Eigims, some of the resources were misappropriated.
"The city just stinks!" Eigims told The Baltic Times when asked of the city's water problems.
Eigims, who leads Latgale's Light, has also exchanged accusations with council member Ilja Podkolzins, current head of the city development committee, after Eigims' stint as mayor was brought short last year. Podkolzins said that the massive debt that Daugavpils has accumulated was due to Eigims' financial mismanagement. The cash-flow problem became so bad last year that Latvijas Gaze, the national gas distributor, threatened to halt supplies to the entire city.
But Eigims defended his financial policies. "What can I say? The whole world lives on credit," adding that Podkolzins was to blame for wasting money while traveling across the globe.
Podkolzins, a member of the National Harmony Party, said that he was the first politician to begin speaking about the financial improprieties and large loans that Eigims had been taking out. "I am blamed for the fact that he is no longer mayor."
He then added, "I am quite confident that Eigims will not return to power," he added.
Eigims, by contrast, was sure that he would return to power. "Of course, I need to do things that haven't been finished, or done at all, and everyone will see that on March 12," he said.
In past elections Eigims has wooed voters by buying them groceries and other small gifts.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis recently visited Daugavpils to meet with local businessmen and political leaders. He admitted that Latgale, the eastern region, had so far received the least amount of EU funds, something he hinted he would like to see changed.
As head of city development, Podkolzins said he had a number of ambitious projects planned for the city, including a new power plant and even possibly reopening the regional airport that was once upon a time used by Soviet fighter jets.
Latvia's First Party 's the so-called priests' party that is part of the country's ruling coalition 's will try to score votes in Daugavpils thanks to the membership of Vladislavs Driksne, head of the locally based Ditton group, a powerful conglomerate whose interests include construction, real estate, retail trade and computers.
Driksne could not be reached for comment.