Social Democrats even with Latvia's Way in poll

  • 2000-10-19
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - The image of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party as "the defender of the little people" accounts for its slight lead in an opinion poll published last week, says one political commentator. Latvia's Way, the Social Democrats' closest rival in the poll and a member of the ruling coalition, has some catching up to do before local government elections in March, a party adviser acknowledged.

Of the 1,002 Latvians polled by social research firm Latvijas Fakti 14 percent said they would vote for the Social Democrats in parliamentary elections while 13.9 percent said they would vote for Latvia's Way. Next in the popularity ranking came the left-leaning For Human Rights in a United Latvia coalition with 8.9 percent of the vote, followed by Fatherland and Freedom with 7.5 percent and the People's Party with 7 percent. Undecideds numbered 25.3 percent while 15.5 percent said they would not vote at all.

"The Social Democrats, as a party which has never been in power, are successfully painting themselves as worthy of being given a chance," said Latvian journalist Karlis Streips.

Support for the Social Democrats has been consolidated by their opposition to the government's privatization program, said Streips.

"They've positioned themselves as defenders of those who have trouble paying their utility bills," said Streips.

"Their campaign of opposition to the privatization of power company Latvenergo has been very demagogic, but very successful. Slogans such as 'No one can take away our River Daugava' (from which electricity is generated) appeal to quasi-patriotic emotions but having nothing to do with economics."

Latvia's Way is not known for its involvement in local politics, probably the scene of the next electoral test, said Aiga Matule, a Latvia's Way board member and adviser.

"Latvia's Way is perceived as a long-established professional party whose politicians are well-known and trusted, but we do need a clearer profile on local issues," she said.

Municipal elections are scheduled for March.

Latvia's Way will benefit from new legislation requiring previously non-affiliated mayors to stand on behalf of a party, said Matule.

"We have to show we can be a trusted local party too. It's good that a lot of mayors have joined our party."

Disillusionment with the current national government means the Social Democrats will win the local elections in Riga and maybe Liepaja, says Aivars Ozolins, political commentator at the leading daily newspaper Diena.

"The current leadership has done a lot to disillusion people," he said.

"People feel decision making is not transparent, not connected to what they want."

Social Democratic policies by contrast aim to meet the "best needs of the majority of the Latvian population," says Social Democratic leader Juris Bojars.

"We have not been involved in any corruption," he says.

But the Social Democrats are profoundly influenced by Aivars Lembergs, mayor of the wealthy port city of Ventspils, says Ozolins. Lembergs is at the top of a small group of people who determine how long the current government lasts, he says.

"A group of parties are financed from the same source, the Social Democrats, Fatherland and Freedom, and some members of the New Party and For Human Rights in a United Latvia," said Ozolins.

The current government will probably be allowed to survive until after the local elections, he says.

"Now is not the right time to bring down the government. But with the governing coalition holding only 40 out of the 100 seats in parliament they could bring the government down if a very crucial decision threatens the interests of Ventspils," Ozolins said.

A local election victory in Riga for the Social Democrats will not necessarily translate into later general election success, says Ozolins.

"If they screw up running Riga municipality they will lose in the general election," he said.

Streips has a more mundane reason for his belief that the present Latvian government is stable.

"Parliament recognizes that they've gone through all the viable options in forming a government already," he said.