• 2007-12-19

cartoon by Jevgenij Cheksters

For a freshman president with no political experience, Valdis Zatlers has performed admirably in the first six months in office. Partisan intrigue and popular discontent have tested the former surgeon's abilities 's and those of his advisers 's to the full, and it is pleasing to see that the man many considered would become a pushover for the People's Party has proven to be insightful and independent. Of course, it is far too early to jump to conclusions, but initial signs suggest that Zatlers is shaping up to be a fine head of state.

Perhaps his most remarkable decision so far was to openly request the resignation of Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis' government. This was the right thing to do, as it accurately reflected the pulse of popular will. The outgoing government had discredited itself beyond what was imaginable in light of its electoral victory a year earlier. The impressive demonstrations outside Parliament demanding the government's dissolution and the restoration of the popular anti-corruption investigator will go down in the history books as a turning point in Latvia's democratic transformation. Zatlers was right to see the popular angst for what it was and recommend that the Cabinet of Ministers step down.

Likewise, Zatlers' insistence that the selection of the next prime minister be transparent and even include public debates was welcomed. It is ironic, yet impossible to forget, that the man who was reportedly selected for the president's job at a secret coalition meeting at the Riga zoo has called for more transparency in this hitherto closed political process. Perhaps this more than anything shows that Zatlers is willing to buck trends and play by the rules he deems appropriate.
Andris Skele, the crafty force behind the People's Party and one of the primary movers behind the decision to elect Zatlers last summer, criticized Zatlers' calls for public debates, saying they were "political theater." Indeed, they are. But that's what politics often needs to be. Look at the campaign in the United States, for instance. What annoys Skele is that by opening the curtains on Latvia's political theater, Zatlers exposes its inherent comedy and farce, much of which is penned by Skele himself. How else can one describe Skele's choice for prime minister, the confused neophyte Edgars Zalans?

Similarly, Zatlers' 11th hour decision to announce that he was unsatisfied with the three prime minister candidates and would look for independent candidates was a skillful ploy. Even if it was part of the theater, it showed politicians that he was keeping his options open and that he alone was the arbiter in the decision. Most importantly, if the next government collapses, Zatlers can publicly claim that the ruling parties had offered him poor candidates.

In the future, Zatlers should not fear bolder action. The next government, by and large, will consist of the same faces and will therefore be prone to the same misjudgments, errors and even misdemeanors. There have been calls 's and will continue to be 's for him to dissolve Parliament. This is not as simple as it seems; according to Latvia's constitution, when disbanding the legislature the president must also put his own political future up to popular vote. Zatlers, of course, would win hands-down, but would the referendum achieve quorum? No one knows. It is likely that Zatlers understands that he should take the risk, but he is being advised to wait for things in Latvia to turn real ugly 's ultra-high inflation, strikes by public-sector workers, more parliamentarians under indictment. Then, when the situation reaches critical mass, he will dissolve the Saeima. Let's hope he does just that.