Riga City Council veers to the right

  • 2005-03-16
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Nationwide municipal elections on March 12 helped right-wing parties make significant gains in Latvia's capital and edge out the Social Democrats, who have held sway over Riga politics for the past four years.

Four center-right and right-wing parties 's New Era, People's Party, Latvia's First Party and For Fatherland and Freedom 's won 31 seats in the 60-seat council, and on March 15, after initial difficulties, they concluded talks on forming a coalition.

The reformist party New Era was the biggest winner with nearly 20 percent of the vote, or 13 seats.

Other right-wing winners included For Fatherland and Freedom with six seats and the People's Party with eight seats, while the center-right Latvia's First Party won four.

The left-wing Social Demo-crats won just seven seats in comparison with 14 at the last municipal elections four years ago.

Aivars Aksenoks, New Era's mayoral candidate for Riga, was tight-lipped as to why the four parties decided not to bring any others into the coalition.

"There was a lot to consider. We have an opportunity to establish a center-right coalition and there is no need to attract any leftist elements," he said.

Juris Lujans, the mayoral candidate for Latvia's First Party, and Janis Birks of For Fatherland and Freedom, shared Aksenok's view, saying that all four parties were ready to work together over the coming four years.

Lujans also added that a coalition comprised of just 31 seats out of a total of 60 would not find it easy to remain united.

"Such a coalition will only be able to work provided that there is really good accord," he said.

The new coalition has not officially given out any posts yet, although Lujans and Birks said they supported Aksenoks' mayoral candidacy.

"The talks only slightly touched on possible posts today," Aksenoks said after the agreement was reached on March 15.

He added that all the parties involved had agreed on the principles by which the posts would be distributed, including "proportionality," in accordance with the mandates held by each party, "professionalism" and "good cooperation." Lujans added that the proportionality aspect should not be translated into pure mathematics.

One surprise in the Riga elections was the unexpectedly strong showing of the left-wing Homeland/Socialist Party, which won eight seats, defying widespread predictions that they would fail to pass the 5 percent barrier needed to stand for government.

Pollster Arnis Kaktins called it the "Siegerist phenomenon," referring to the success of a party run by an ethnic German who handed out bananas to win parliamentary seats for his party, the National Movement for Latvia, in the mid 1990s.

Ironically, some political commentators said that the success of the Homeland/Socialist Party helped to ensure the formation of the right-wing coalition.

"This basically forces the right-wing parties to cooperate," said Pauls Raudseps of the Latvian daily Diena.

"They did well thanks to endless propaganda on the radio station PIK, which is owned by Jurijs Zuravlovs, who stacked the [Homeland/Socialist Party candidate's] list with his relatives," political analyst Karlis Streips said.

The Homeland/Socialist Party, which is a miscellany of ex-communists, euroskeptics and political unknowns, also benefited at the polls by giving such prominence to its top candidate Arturs Rubiks. Some voters in Riga mistakenly cast their ballots for Rubiks, thinking he was the former communist mayor, Alfreds Rubiks. The former is in fact the latter's son.

The regional elections may also be the last ones for some time for the National Harmony Party and Latvia's Way, since both have repeatedly performed poorly in recent elections.

The National Harmony Party failed to get into the Riga City Council, despite the addition of MP Janis Jurkans to its ranks. The party's future is now up in the air after failing last year to get one of the nine seats up for grabs in the Europarliament elections. The future of Latvia's Way is also equally uncertain.

At the national level, the big winner was the People's Party, which took 91 seats overall, more than twice its nearest competitor New Era.

In the eastern town of Rezekne, the election was marred by allegations of vote buying. At least 15 people complained to local authorities that they were offered five lats (7 euros) for their vote by the New Center party. Three parties have threatened to contest the election results in Rezekne as a result of the allegations. Local police reportedly detained two people who were standing for election in connection with the buying votes.

Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs' party, For Latvia and Venstpils, unsurprisingly took 10 out of 12 seats in the port city, while in Daugavpils the combination of Latvia's Way and Daugavpils City Party prevailed over their longstanding political opponent Latgale's Light party.