Aksenoks becomes Riga's new mayor

  • 2005-03-30
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - After days of wrangling and wrestling, a four-party right-wing coalition on March 29 narrowly elected Aivars Aksenoks of New Era as the city of Riga's new chief executive.
Aksenoks won by a margin of two votes, 31- 29, barely beating outgoing Mayor Gundars Bojars, who was backed by left-wing parties. The election was a major victory for Latvia's leading right-wing parties and signaled a significant shift in how Riga will be managed.

The four-party coalition includes New Era, the People's Party, For Fatherland and Freedom and Latvia's First Party. An agreement was signed earlier in the day before the mayor's vote, with most of the posts having been distributed among the four blocs last week.

However, due to the extremely narrow advantage that the coalition possesses, there has been speculation that the ruling quartet could invite the Social Democrats, who have seven seats, to shore up support in the City Council.

Aksenoks told journalists after the election that he felt "a little bewildered, but very elated." He said that the real difficulties lay ahead, as the challenges of solving the city's mounting problems required immediate attention.

A coalition meeting late on March 29 would confirm the choices for committee heads and deputy mayors, though most of the portfolio was divvied up. Each of New Era's coalition partners was given a position of deputy mayor 's former mayor Andris Argalis of the People's Party, Janis Birks from For Fatherland and Freedom and former Economy Minister Juris Lujans of Latvia's First Party will all become deputy mayors, pending confirmation.

Argalis will chair Riga Free Port, a position usually held by the mayor, and each party in the coalition will also have a representative on the port's board. The port is one of the city's largest taxpayers and one of the fastest-growing businesses whose development affects thousands of city residents.

"The port has traditionally been one of the great pigsties of the city," political analyst Karlis Streips said.

In the capital, New Era easily won more seats than the People's Party, taking in nearly 20 percent of the vote and 13 seats compared with only eight for the People's Party. The two parties share power on the national level with Latvia's First Party and the Greens and Farmers Union. (For Fatherland and Freedom is in the opposition, though it maintains a cooperative attitude with the Cabinet.)

But from the outset, the jousting among right-wing forces was bitter. The People's Party tried to besmirch the reputation of Aksenoks, calling him "weak." The party said the mayor candidate lacked a plan and his tenure in Vietnam during the last years of the Soviet Union was, at best, dubious.

New Era responded by saying that Aksenoks' candidacy was non-negotiable.

"The People's Party has increasingly turned demagogic," Streips said. The analyst said that criticisms about Aksenoks' time in Vietnam were out of place.

"New Era has yet to prove themselves to be a typical Latvian party 's one that grabs anything it can," he said.

Ultimately the People's Party backed down, not only because the division of seats on the City Council all but made the four-party coalition the only viable option, but a row in Riga could have spilled over into the national government. The left-wing parties that would have been acceptable, the Social Democrats and New Center, did not have enough votes to replace the vacuum, had New Era walked away from the negotiating table.

Cooperation with left-wing parties such as For Human Rights in a United Latvia or the rump party Homeland/Socialists, which appears to glorify Alfreds Rubiks, the last Soviet mayor who is overtly sentimental about the Soviet period, would have been the kiss of death for any Latvian party.

The animus between New Era and the People's Party, ostensibly both nationalist, originated when New Era emerged on the political scene during the last parliamentary election speaking of the forces of light and dark. Through the fall of two governments, both parties eventually decided to work together on the national level, as the other alternatives were too unstable.

New Era members will lead four committees, as well as the executive director of the city, which will go to Eriks Skapars, while the People's Party will likely head three committees.