Riga coalition talks nearly collapse

  • 2005-03-23
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Talks over forming a coalition between four parties in the Riga City Council reached a breakthrough on March 23 after nearly collapsing earlier in the week after the two biggest parties disputed a leading candidate for the mayoral post.

The People's Party had originally stated it could not accept New Era's candidate to fill the mayor's seat, Aivars Aksenoks, but eventually the party changed its stances and said that they could accept Aksenoks as Riga's mayor.

At the same time the People's Party appealed to New Era to be more flexible in negotiations on handing on committee portfolios.

New Era finished first in the March 12 election, while the People's Party ended up third. The two parties form the backbone of national government.

Initially New Era had responded bitterly to the People's Party demands, saying that Aksenoks' candidacy was not negotiable and that, if forced, it would find help from the center-left in forming a city government or head into opposition.

New Era took nearly 20 percent of the municipal vote and won 13 seats. If the party did walk, it would force the other potential partners 's namely For Fatherland and Freedom and Latvia's First Party 's to turn to the left-wing to cull together a municipal government.

Minus New Era, a majority coalition without either the far left For Human Rights in a United Latvia, and Homeland, a confederation of euroskeptics and socialists, would be impossible. Likewise, it would be equally unworkable to replace the eight votes for People's Party, since For Fatherland and Freedom have said they would not cooperate with New Center.

The situation offers a frightening predicament since, as many observers have pointed out, any drastic moves in Riga would likely have repercussions on the national level.

Some analysts pointed to a conflict among economic backers as partly explaining the talks' lack of progress, in addition to unclear criticism of Aksenoks, a former justice minister. Shots have been taken at Aksenoks for his stint in Vietnam during the Soviet period, holding consultations with unspecified advisors and his work as minister.

In an effort to show the gravity of the situation, New Era held talks with center-left parties New Center and the Latvian Social Democrats last week, who have five and seven seats respectively.

Janis Lagdzins, faction head of the People's Party, told the daily Diena that instead of Aksenoks he would like to see Ivars Gaters, minister of municipal affairs and a New Era member. Gaters refused the offer.

Lagdzins cited Akesnoks' supposed lack of experience and his lack of an action plan and authority as reasons why another candidate was needed. He added that former mayor Andris Argalis, incidentally from the People's Party, would also make a good candidate.

Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, who belongs to the People's Party, also stressed that Aksenoks would not make a good mayor, arguing that Aksenoks' unknown advisors cast doubt on his decision-making capabilities. "He is always going to consult with someone," the prime minister told national radio.

Kalvitis added that whoever these advisors were, they should appear at the negotiating table.

Ainars Slesers of Latvia's First Party also publicly said he doubted Aksenoks' ability. "We are not excluding that the mayor of Riga could be Aksenoks, but I think that someone else would be better," he said.

Janis Birks of For Fatherland and Freedom said the gridlock boiled down to the New Era and People's Party and that should things go awry, the onus of responsibility would lie with them. He said his party would support Aksenoks.

The post of mayor is extremely crucial not only due to the city's importance to the national economy but because the mayor chairs the board at Riga Free Port, which in the next four years is set to undergo dramatic changes.

"The port is one of the most important positions in Riga," political scientist Janis Ikstens said.

The position of port chairman provides the mayor with a second salary, one far more generous that what he is paid at the municipal level.