RIGA - Defense Minister Einars Repse held on as leader of the center-right New Era party, easily defeating Economy Minister Krisjanis Karins at a party congress Nov. 12.
Party delegates gave 329 votes to Repse and 205 to Karins.
The former Central Banker will hold the reigns of power for the next two years.
The choice of leader was crucial for the relatively young party, since New Era's greatest challenge in the near future will be setting itself apart from the country's other center-right parties, including the People's Party and For Fatherland and Freedom.
Currently New Era is in coalition with the People's Party and has close working relations with For Fatherland and Freedom, which is in the opposition.
Repse remained party chief despite growing unease within the party due to his business activities, which in recent weeks have come under increasing scrutiny and criticism. The former prime minister was heavily leveraged in a number of property deals, with his debts reaching, according to some reports, several hundred thousand euros.
In addition, Repse has been criticized for controversial statements about rival politicians and for his uncompromising personality, preferring to dispense orders rather than lead consultations.
Faced with this rising tide of discontent, Repse announced he would sell much of his real estate and began holding meetings with party members across the country shortly before the vote.
Speaking to party members, Repse said that he "takes [his leadership and responsibilities] very seriously" and that he "would put aside all that might hinder his work for the good of Latvia."
The New Era leader attempted to mend fences and congratulated Karins for a strong showing.
Still, Repse has lost much of the popularity that helped his party become the largest in Parliament. For months now, he has been the most unpopular minister in government. A recent SKDS poll showed that a party lead by Karins or former Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete would stand a much better chance in next year's parliamentary elections.
Two members left the party earlier this year, including former Interior Minister Maris Gulbis, deprive New Era of two seats in Parliament. The main catalyst for their exit: Repse's leadership style.
To be sure, much of the strong rhetoric that has landed Repse in hot water with his own party members has also helped New Era earn its points with the electorate.
At the same time much of New Era's tough talk against corruption appears to have lost its sharpness. If, for instance, the party came to power in 2002 attacking the People's Party, the two right-wing rivals are now part of the same coalition.
Many New Era members fear that the party will lose its momentum with a highly unpopular leader like Repse. Special Task Minister for Social Integration Ainars Latkovskis said the party risked becoming a "niche party." He supported Karins as the party's new leader.
On the other hand, some observers don't see Repse's paltry approval ratings as any indicator of the party's future performance.
Aigars Freimanis, head of the Latvijas Fakti pollster, said that other unpopular leaders still managed to lead their parties despite being unloved by the public. "In many cases the country has had unpopular leaders," he said. "Andris Skele is one example," he added, citing continued support for the People's Party despite Skele's dismal approval ratings.