FLOWERS OF POWER: Outgoing president Vaira Vike-Freiberga passes a bouquet to congratulate Zatlers on his win. The presidency will officially be handed over after July 7, when Vike-Freiberga steps down.
RIGA - Valdis Zatlers, an orthopedic surgeon who admitted that he failed to pay taxes on cash gifts from patients (see page 3), was elected the next president of Latvia in a May 31 closed parliamentary ballot. Zatlers, whose candidacy was backed by the ruling coalition, received 58 votes 's seven more than the 51 required to win. His only opponent, former Constitutional Court Judge Aivars Endzins, won 39 votes. Two MPs were absent during the ballot.
After the vote, Zatlers, who was completely unknown two weeks prior to the election, was heckled by journalists on the lack of transparency involving cash gratuities he received from patients, a common practice in countries of the former Soviet Union.
The post-election interrogation left the surgeon frazzled, though he promised to meet with tax inspectors to discuss the unreported income.
Zatlers, who is not a member of any political party, tried to stress that his presidency would strive to consolidate Latvian society, which is split along ethnic lines.
"We have to pinpoint the reasons that split the nation... They have to be addressed, it is necessary to talk about them openly and they have to be weeded out," he said. "If we do not find these reasons, the split will continue."
When asked two questions in Russian by Chinese and Estonian journalists, Zatlers answered in Russian 's which came as a shock to many viewers. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga does not speak Russian, so it is plausible many of Latvia's Russians will welcome a head of state who speaks their native tongue.
Zatlers also urged stronger pan-Baltic unity and even said he has some ideas how to strengthen regional cooperation, though he did no go into details.
Zatlers thanked Parliament for their confidence, and said that it obliges him to "serve the state conscientiously."
"My dignity is the dignity of my people," Zatlers said, quoting a classical Latvian poet. "It's an honor to serve Latvia," he added.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis voiced confidence that Zatlers would be "the best possible president for Latvia's future."
Vike-Freiberga telephoned Zatlers to congratulate him on the victory, and the two met on June 3 in the first of a series of meetings to prepare the doctor for the nation's top job. Zatlers said Vike-Freiberga's advice was "worth gold."
On the sidelines, criticism of Zatlers' victory 's and the procedures for electing a president in general 's intensified.
In every opinion poll in the run-up to the ballot, Zatlers trailed Endzins and other candidates, sparking widespread outrage that lawmakers didn't listen to public opinion. A center-left opposition party, the Harmony Center, has even called for a debate on having a popularly elected president.
Right-wing opposition groups said a President Zatlers would put the Baltic state at a disadvantage, given the surgeon's failure to comply with the law.
"As it was phrased by a Danish newspaper 's 'a corrupt doctor' becomes our president. That's a very tough stance to get away from," Krisjanis Karins, leader of the opposition New Era party, told The Baltic Times. (See interview on Page 14.) New Era is also keen to change the constitution to have the president elected by voters.
Transparency International Latvia even organized a peaceful demonstration on the day of the elections in support of Endzins.
Zatlers was nominated for the Latvian presidency by the four coalition parties 's the conservative People's Party, the nationalist alliance For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, the Latvia's First Party and Latvia's Way election bloc and the Greens and Farmers Union. The coalition picked Zatlers after it failed to agree on any of the candidates nominated by the individual parties.
Zatlers is due to choose his cabinet from among those advisors to Vike-Freiberga that decide to stay and any other people he deems qualified for the high level positions.
Vike-Freiberga is due to step down on July 7 after her two terms in office. The earliest date that Zatlers could take over is July 8.