Latvia to vote amid changing political landscape

  • 2001-03-08
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - The Social Democratic Workers' Party is expected to perform well outside Latvia's major cities in municipal elections March 11. But whether it can upset the status quo in Riga, Ventspils and Daugavpils is doubtful, according to the party's leader.

The major parties have reportedly spent unprecedented sums on their campaigns. This reflects the increasing opportunities to gain wealth and status that local councilors will have as European Union membership approaches, says Nils Muiznieks, director of the Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies in Riga.

Continued protests in Riga last week by non-citizens seeking voting rights are likely to go unheeded until "the day before Latvia joins the EU", he said.

The polling firm SKDS put the Social Democrats in front among voters in a February poll. Of those polled 17.7 percent said they would vote for the Social Democrats in a general election. Andris Skele's People's Party made a big recovery to take second place with 13.6 percent.

Freelance journalist Karlis Streips believes the Social Democrats may gain some seats in the coalition that governs Riga City Council. The party's attempts to persuade voters that, having never held power, it is now time to give it a chance, have had considerable success, says Streips.

The party's leader Juris Bojars remains cautious, however.

"In general we will have very positive results, much better than in previous years," he said. "We'll win several cities and municipalities, but it's difficult to say whether we can create a government in Riga. The ruling parties have invested millions in their campaigns in Riga, with advertisements that yell at us every second minute. It's where the most difficult struggle is."

The People's Party's lengthy television advertisements aimed at improving former Prime Minister Skele's image have also been "very successful," said Streips.

Describing the campaign as "very quiet," Streips rejects the widespread theory that the good manners most candidates have displayed toward their opponents are due to a secret deal, by which the People's Party and its rival Latvia's Way have agreed to form a coalition in Riga. "I'm surprised how little smearing of opponents there has been. The tradition is for the parties to let loose every cannon. But the idea of a vast conspiracy dividing the spoils is not true."

In Latvia's next largest cities, Ventspils and Daugavpils, criticism of the ruling parties has been unusually strong. In Ventspils, Latvia's Way has produced newsletters criticizing the For Latvia and Ventspils bloc of Mayor Aivars Lembergs, who controls much of the local press. But whether For Latvia and Ventspils' opponents will "dent Lembergs' tank" is doubtful, says Streips.

In Daugavpils, the party Latgale's Light is proving an unaccustomed challenge to Mayor Aleksejs' Vidavskis' City Party. But the stability associated with Vidavskis means he is still likely to win, says Arvids Barsevskis, head of the Center for Environmental Research and Education in Daugavpils.

Parties have generally responded positively to a call by the Latvian branch of corruption watchdog Transparency International for them to reveal details of campaign spending once the election is over.

Such openness is expected to become mandatory under a government-sponsored bill designed to address fears that policy is being framed to meet the requirements of party sponsors. But the Social Democrats suspect Transparency International of political bias and have rejected the initiative.

"Why the hell do we have to report to every society that asks for it?" asked Bojars. "Why should the conscience of the Latvian people be vested in Transparency International? First we should respond to government organizations and legislation. The details of our funding are in the Register of Enterprises. Journalists can look in the files."

A week before the election 200 people gathered in central Riga to call for non-citizens to be given voting rights in local elections. Speakers included representatives of the For Human Rights in a United Latvia party, which is supported mostly by non-Latvians, including Olympic rowing champion Ivan Klementyev.

An activist in the radical National Bolshevik movement, Vladimir Linderman, was detained by police during the rally.

Muiznieks says giving voting rights to non-citizens in local elections would not endanger Latvia's foreign policy goals or its language laws.

In Estonia, where non-citizens have had voting rights in local elections since 1993, naturalization rates have been higher, he says.

"Some people fear giving non-citizens voting rights would remove their incentive to naturalize and learn Latvian, but surveys show people learn Latvian to improve their job prospects, because they consider it the natural thing to do, because it will increase their security.

"It's the same for naturalization. Voting rights don't lessen the necessity to learn Latvian. The municipal elections are about building parks and keeping the streets clean. On these issues the more participation the better. Giving people voting rights gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility. Municipalities have no power to influence the country's foreign policy goals or language law legislation."

Pressure from the EU to give non-citizens voting rights in local elections is likely to increase as accession approaches, says Muiznieks. Non-citizens have voting rights in local elections in five EU member states as well as Norway.

Muiznieks believes the inclusive tone adopted by most of the parties is partly due to the need to attract the votes of people who have become Latvian citizens since the passing of a naturalization law in 1995. In Riga, 22,000 people have naturalized and are expected to boost For Human Rights in a United Latvia's chances of winning coalition seats.

Municipalities' responsibility for distributing multi-million euro EU funds has intensified parties' efforts to do well, he believes.

"In Riga the parties have pulled out their biggest guns, such as Aija Poca for Latvia's Way, and Einars Cilinskis for For Fatherland and Freedom," Muiznieks said. "This attests to what a plum job Riga City Council is in terms of distributing money and patronage. Municipal government will increase in importance as we approach EU membership."