RIGA - Parliamentary elections are less than a year away, and political parties have begun maneuvering to capture the attention of a capricious electorate. Judging by this year's municipal elections, which brought out some of the most aggressive political advertising in recent years, experts are predicting the rhetoric will reach new lows over the next few months.
The battleground for popular causes will include citizenship for minorities, gay rights, the war in Iraq and the Russian border treaty. Each party is picking one as its own and driving a message to a weary public.
Other issues will also metastasize from outside the current political spectrum, bringing back more extreme rhetoric that had previously vanished in the run-up to EU and NATO membership.
"The campaign has begun very early this year," political scientist Janis Ikstens said, adding that this election would be marked by a number of political party consolidations.
Right-wing parties took the top three spots in the latest polling data, with New Era, the People's Party and For Fatherland and Freedom coming in third. How these three parties jockey to distinguish themselves from one another, and how they portray their right-wing competitors, will arguably be the most intriguing part of the race. Latvian voters, after all, have tended to favor parties on the right of the spectrum.
Closer to the center there will Latvia's First Party, the Greens and Farmers Union and one or two newer parties such as New Democrats, led by New Era-dropout Maris Gulbis.
Regardless, each party will have its banner.
"Latvia's First Party has already shown it will carry homophobia as a flag in this next election," journalist Karlis Streips said.
Commenting on For Fatherland and Freedom, Streips said that the party's electorate was dying off and its leaders could boost its chances by teaming up with All For Latvia (Visu Latvijai), a radical youth nationalist organization.
Latvia, which has had 12 governments since 1990, has often seen its political parties rise and fall as fast as the changeover in governments. (Only For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, which is a combination of two parties, has been represented in every parliament.)
Extreme or merely inexplicable moves by political parties are often attributed to an upcoming election, and the country continually appears to be in the midst of an eternal electoral campaign 's a battle for a fickle electorate with an erratic attention span.
New Era, the largest party in Parliament, is in the midst of a leadership struggle between Defense Minister Einars Repse and Economy Minister Krisjanis Karins. Who wins could determine the party's fate. A decision is expected at a November party congress.
The party's popularity has declined considerable since they came into power three years ago on an anti-corruption platform. Repse has consistently been the least popular minister in government, and his fall from grace has been attributed to his flamboyant personal style and obstinacy when it comes to running the party.
Karins, by contrast, is an expat-Latvian with a milder decorum and a soft-spoken voice.
A series of mergers is being predicted. Latvia's First Party has joined with long-time stalwart Latvia's Way, and will run on a joint ticket. On the face of it, the two parties are an unusual fit 's a religiously conservative party married to a liberal pro-business party.
Latvia's First Party has suffered from declining ratings despite holding 14 seats in Parliament and made headlines by proposing a constitutional ban on same sex marriage. Still, the message appealed to many Latvian voters.
"Is the government allowed to close the border treaty with Russia without demanding back Abrene?" former Prime Minister Andris Berzins asked at a press conference where the merger of his Latvia's Way with Latvia's First Party was announced.
The Greens and Farmers' Union, not content perhaps with their two-party union, a combination unknown in the rest of Europe, will likely unite with the New Democrats, and possibly a number of regional parties, including Aivars Lembergs, the mayor of Ventspils.
Lembergs' possible return may be one reason why the campaigning has begun so early this year. He is widely believed to be in control of substantial financial resources, as well as a number of newspapers.
What's more, the general prosecutor has decided to go ahead with a criminal investigation into the Ventspils mayor's influence over his city, and the lucrative local transit businesses. It has been widely speculated that Lembergs may seek a seat in Parliament partly for immunity.
Lembergs, meanwhile, struck back by calling the criminal proceedings politically motivated, particularly by New Era.
On the left end of the spectrum, the National Harmony Party and New Center have already made statements that they would consider a joint ticket and are looking for more regional parties as partners.