RIGA - A cooperation agreement between two leading left-of-center parties has squeezed out veteran politician Janis Jurkans and forged a potentially strong alliance that will represent minority interests in both municipal and national governments.
Jurkans, a former foreign minister, quit the National Harmony Party that he led for more than 10 years after his colleagues opted to form a working coalition with New Center. He slammed the arrangement as a "business project" that would be financed by banker-oligarchs.
In an interview with Diena, Latvia's leading daily, he referred obliquely to Parex Bank as a major sponsor of the new political formation.
The alliance will be named Harmony Center, and its board and council will be evenly divided between National Harmony and New Center.
New Center, a young party, is led by Sergejs Dolgopolov, a rival of Jurkans. Friction between the two reached a high last year when Dolgopolovs was expelled from National Harmony.
But Jurkans' fortunes have been on the wane lately, as National Harmony had a poor showing during municipal elections in March.
"He has suffered a number of defeats and is now taking responsibility for them," political scientist Janis Ikstens said of Jurkans' departure, adding that it showed "how tired" he was.
After National Harmony split from For Human Rights in a United Latvia, Jurkans and his colleagues tried to turn their party into the dominant voice of Latvia's disgruntled minorities. But in the end the politician was unable to overtake his rivals.
During the European Parliament elections, the National Harmony Party failed to pass the 5 percent barrier, while For Human Rights sent Tatjana Zdanoka to Brussels where she wasted no time in drumming up the cause of ethnic Russians in Latvia.
Worse, Jurkans' party was unable to pass the 5 percent barrier for seats in the Riga City Council during the March election, while Dolgopolovs' New Center did.
Competition between the two parties and the absence of National Harmony from Riga City Council handed the city government back to the right-wing by the narrowest of majorities.
"That was a very stupid gift we gave our colleagues on the right," said Boris Cilevics, an MP from the National Harmony Party. He added that he never supported the expulsion of Dogopolovs, but now Harmony Center would provide an opportunity for a broad center-left coalition.
Other center-left political forces are taking to the concept of Harmony Center. At the founding congress it was announced that the Daugavpils City Party would also be joining Harmony Center, while the Latvian Socialist Party is reportedly considering working with the new party.
Ikstens, however, said that to include the Socialists in an essentially moderate left-wing party would be risky since Latvia's socialists are largely remnants of the Communist Party. Some do not hide their fondness for the Soviet era.
Still, Cilevics confirmed that two parties other than the Socialist Party were in talks with Harmony Center, though he declined to name them.
Because of the rift in Latvia's moderate left-wing forces, there exists a possibility that no party will pass the 5 percent barrier in parliamentary elections scheduled for October next year.
Not everyone was happy about the unification. Each party saw some loss of membership afterward. Janis Locmelis, head of the Riga branch of the National Harmony Party, was not accepted into the new political party, and a number of New Center members did not remain.
Meanwhile, New Center has had its own problems, despite making the Riga City Council (where it has five seats out of 60). The party was hit with an alleged vote-buying scandal in Jurmala and Rezekne. Some of those involved will reportedly be expelled or are expected to leave the party.