Liberals, ministers find common ground in merger

  • 2005-11-02
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Longtime political stalwart Latvia's Way voted by a large margin at its party congress on Oct. 29 to merge with the religion-oriented Latvia's First Party in what many agree proves the old adage about politics and bedfellows.

If successful, the merger will unite a group of seasoned liberals, Latvia's Way, with the young clique of Lutheran ministers who make up the backbone of Latvia's First Party, which is one of the ruling coalition parties.

Observers were quick to decry the move as a marriage of convenience, not unlike that of the Farmer's Union and Green Party prior to the 2002 elections (which allowed the combined party to pass the 5 percent threshold).

"For three years, we have been taken off the playing field and have become commentators," Ivars Godmanis, head of Latvia's Way, told the party congress.

Joining with Latvia's First Party would amount to a synergy of experience and energy, Godmanis added.

Latvia's Way, which in the United States would be considered libertarian, is one of the most experienced political parties in the country, but one that has fallen on hard times recently. The party is no longer represented in Parliament after a woeful showing in the last elections. They also faired poorly in this year's municipal elections, though they were able to win one seat in the European Parliament.

Though in power, Latvia's First Party is still struggling, with most polls showing it would fail to cross the 5 percent threshold. The Priests' Party, as some members like to call it, had a dismal performance in the municipal elections despite spending lavishly on an advertising campaign featuring members in white shirts and a message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Founder and Transport Minister Ainars Slesers has seen his previous two parties disintegrate.

Still, Juris Lujans, a top figure in Latvia's First Party, said the two parties have common values concerning economics, and moderate relations toward the country's Russophones.

Lujans was previously a member of the Riga City Council, a post he vacated due to, as he said at the time, a decision to authorize the country's first gay parade. The issue of gay rights may be a point of tension between the two parties and is one of the clearest distinctions between them.

Indeed, Latvia's Way leader and former Prime Minister Andris Berzins was quoted by Diena as saying that, although his party does not support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, it would not interfere in Latvia's First Party's plans of passing such an amendment. He said he personally regarded the proposal as "nonsensical," but pointed out that Latvia's First Party had submitted its proposal before the new bloc came about.

In terms of finance, the "religious liberals" will be able to marshal large resources from both parties. Berzins will likely be able to draw on support from Parex Bank, where his sits on an advisory council, while Slesers is one of the country's richest men.

The new political party merger has not struck a cord with the public, according to recent opinion polls. The latest poll by Latvijas Fakti gave the religious liberals only 3.8 percent for the month of October.