RIGA - The list of Latvia's presidential hopefuls underwent dramatic changes last week, with the three registered runners dropping out and two strong, non-partisan candidates emerging before the May 24 registration deadline. Leaders of the four ruling coalition parties agreed to throw their weight behind Valdis Zatlers, a surgeon and head of the Riga Traumatology and Orthopedics Hospital.
The appearance of Zatlers automatically excluded two candidates who had been proposed by coalition parties 's Maris Riekstins and Karina Petersone 's leaving only Sandra Kalniete from the opposition New Era party to run against Zatlers.
However, in a last minute twist, the opposition Harmony Center, a left-wing party composed mainly of Russians, proposed Aivars Endzins, former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, to run against Zatlers. Harmony Center officials said they made the move primarily to ensure that MPs have a better choice.
The move, entirely unexpected, was praised by both opposition and right-wing forces in the country, since it placed a renowned judge of excellent repute against a surgeon who is largely unknown to the Latvian public.
Finally, during a televised debate on May 23, Kalniete withdrew her candidacy and called on lawmakers to support Endzins.
The first round of voting will take place May 31. If no candidate gathers 51 votes in the 100-member Parliament, there will be a second round later in the day. If a majority still do not support either Endzins or Zatlers, then the candidate with the most votes will stand alone for a third ballot.
Failure to gain 51 votes will require Parliament to convene again in approximately 10 days for a second round, which will have new candidates.
Commenting Zatlers' candidacy, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said that the coalition had found a good compromise.
"Of course, a variety of opinions will be voiced in these days. I personally believe that we have found a good candidate," he said. "First, we know Zatlers for many years as one of the most successful Latvian doctors, not only in the professional field, but also as the head of Latvia's best hospital... Secondly, doctors are very responsible," he said in an interview with Latvian public radio.
Interior Minister Ivars Godmanis from Latvia's First Party/Latvia's Way said that Zatlers possesses all the qualities necessary for a president.
Greens and Farmers Union faction head Augusts Brigmanis noted that the decision proves the strength of the coalition, and he voiced appreciation that the People's Party and LPP/LC gave up their candidates.
Zatlers has worked as head of the traumatology and orthopedics hospital since 1994. He graduated from the Riga Medical Institute in 1979 and for a while practiced medicine in the United States.
Meanwhile, skeptics hammered Zatlers. Latvians are very aware that doctors often require "cash donations" in order to carry out an operation or treatment, and this was the first thing critics latched onto.
To his credit, Zatlers admitted to accepting "payments of gratitude" from patients, though he declined to specify when, for what and how much, saying he didn't bother with such details. Pressed by journalists from the Diena daily on taxes, Zatlers dodged giving direct answers.
The State Revenue Service announced that it would assess all information it has at its disposal on revenues, expenditures and tax payments relating to Zatlers. The anti-corruption bureau said it would also investigate whether there was any wrongdoing in Zatlers' acceptance of money from patients.
Prior to the ballot on May 31, a parliamentary ethics committee will submit a report on the candidates' integrity for the office of head of state.
For his part, Endzins is tremendously popular among Latvians. A May 24 telephone vote conducted by the popular TV program "Kas Notiek Latvija?" (What's happening in Latvia?) saw as many as 15,421 people cast their telephone vote for Endzins, while then candidate Sandra Kalniete was supported by 4,230 people, and Zatlers receiving only 3,842 votes.
Endzins is seen as outspoken, fiercely independent and unafraid to make difficult decisions, which Latvia's president will no doubt have to cope with given the number of volatile domestic issues.
Most recently, Endzins is known for criticizing recent trends in Latvian politics and slamming the so-called "oligarchs" for interfering in state affairs.
Krisjanis Karins, leader of New Era, told The Baltic Times that the party would support Endzins and would try to convince other deputies to cast their vote for the former court justice.
Harmony Center chairman Nils Usakovs said in a statement that during Endzins' 10-year rule in the Constitutional Court the court was independent. He also noted that Endzins "proved his ability to stand above all political passions and fights and make independent decisions. Such quality is very significant for the head of the state."
Endzins is less optimistic about his chances of winning the post than his staunch supporters in Parliament, saying that he accepted the nomination to try to keep democracy alive in Latvia.
"I agreed to the offer to make the elections more democratic...so that lawmakers would have a choice between independent candidates," Endzins told the Baltic News Service.
He said that he does not set high his chances to become the president, but that "in this situation" he believes such a step was necessary.
The president is due to leave her post on July 7.