Municipal elections laced with criticism

  • 2005-03-09
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - In the lead-up to the March 12 municipal elections, New Era, For Human Rights, and the Social Democratic Workers Party were looking strongest in the capital, especially with the backdrop of alleged campaign fund misuse and illicit political advertising.

The reformist party New Era led with 13.3 percent, followed by For Human Rights with 10 percent. The Social Democratic Workers Party and For Fatherland and Freedom were close behind with slightly more than 9 percent each, according to a poll by SKDS two weeks before the election.

Other parties set to pass the 5 percent entry barrier in the 60-seat city council are the People's Party with 8.5 percent, New Center, run by Deputy Mayor Sergejs Dolgopolovs, and the Latvian First Party, which both polled around 7 percent. However, 14.5 percent of respondents said they were still undecided.

Riga's economic strength and large population make it the supreme prize for political parties since whoever controls the capital gains influence over considerable economic resources. Therefore, some parties have resorted to extremely emotive advertising.

Latvian nationalist party For Fatherland and Freedom, perhaps inspired by taking four out of nine seats in last year's Europarliament elections, have run advertisements claiming that the number of 'reds' has been increasing ever year, alluding to the presence of left-wing parties in the Riga City Council.

"These are the same arguments and the same style of advertising that we have seen before in the Europarliament elections," said Aigars Freimanis from the pollster Latvijas Fakti.

"I think they have produced a series of TV ads that leave hardly anyone indifferent, probably everyone takes sides after viewing them," political scientist Janis Ikstens added.

For Human Rights in a United Latvia's candidate for mayor is Juris Petropavlovskis, a controversial leader of the radical anti-school reform organization Shtab. His participation could serve the same function as Tatjana Zdanoka's in the Europarliament elections by radicalizing the Latvian electorate.

But Peteropavlovskis said he has yet to receive citizenship, so if elected, he would not technically be eligible to take up his place in the city council.

Besides the specter of nationalism, parties have also relied on personalities to help their electoral performance.

"There are probably 500-plus elections that will take place on March 12, so the range of issues is pretty large. What might be important in Riga might not be in Daugavpils," Ikstens said.

The image of former Economy Minister Juris Lujans of Latvia's First Party can be seen all over the capital. The First Party also has a former integration minister in its advertisements, despite the fact that he's not running for office.

Meanwhile, the People's Party has used former mayor Andris Argailis, who was a member of Parliament before deciding to step down and attempt to return as city mayor - a known personality to bring in the votes.

Parties seeking moderate votes face stiff competition; a crowded field threatens to eliminate several middle ground parties, where New Center, the National Harmony Party, the ruling Social Democrats, and Latvia's First Party are all competing for the same votes.

A media monitoring project, sponsored by the public policy NGO Providus, said that it found possible illicit advertising in the form of disguised material in the Russian and Latvian media. The ads overtly support political parties in the election run-up.

Such advertising occurred most often with Latvia's First Party in the Russian language media, and the ruling Social Democratic Workers Party in the Latvian language media.

In a further strike against the campaigns, Delna, the local chapter of Transparency International has given Riga, Ventspils, and Daugavpils the distinction of having the most corrupt local elections. It said that reigning city governments are using municipal resources for electoral purposes.