• 2001-03-08
While Estonians are preparing for the first municipal e-elections in 2002, their southern neighbors in Latvia are preparing to visit their old, customary polling stations in just a few days to choose municipal leaders for the next four years.

That might be a tough job Ð to pick the right ones from the beauty contest on street posters and the litany of pre-election promises heard on radio and TV and read in newspapers. These days it's impossible to open a mailbox without touching a party newspaper, newsletter or brochure. The Social Democrats are particularly active as an opposition party, pinching at the failed promises of the parties in power.

Riga, the capital city which accounts for one-third of the country's population and the bulk of its resources, is particularly fertile ground for the parties to flex their muscles. However, the real battlefield is going to be outside the capital - in the second and third largest cities of Daugavpils and Ventspils. Daugavpils, which has been run by former Communist Aleksejs Vidavskis since independence, and Ventspils, whose Mayor Aivars Lembergs is a former Communist party instructor, face serious challenges this year. Rihards Eigims, Latgales Gaisma's candidate for Daugavpils mayor, is a new alternative to the beloved Vidavskis whose good relations with Russian authorities are reportedly behind the cheap heating costs in the city. In the western Latvian port city of Ventspils four parties are running this time, the first serious attempt since independence to crack Lembergs' monolithic city government. If anyone, just one outsider from, let's say, the Latvia's Way party gets a seat around the municipality's table, the outline of many things in the city council would change dramatically, some experts have noted.

For Riga, no such challenges are expected. If you believe second-hand reports coming from the outer leaves of the grapevine, it has all been agreed on beforehand during an alleged meeting between Andris Skele and Lembergs in February. The current Riga mayor, Fatherland and Freedom's Andris Argalis is to keep his seat in exchange for the People's Party leader Skele getting a slice of the Latvian Shipping Company during its privatization process. Just as simple as that.

We won't be able to tell you whether these allegations are true or not Ð neither today, nor after the elections. After one, two years Ð yes, if evidence emerges of another bunch of misspent millions of dollars, another line of fancy private houses being built by the new city officials and the growing mess in Latvia's capital that was once called "little Paris."

Many people are skeptical about going to the polls at all. Only about 41 percent of the residents of Riga plan to cast their votes, a worrying statistic given that the local government will directly influence their lives. If the trend of public officials' wheeling and dealing continues, in four years there might be very few who will allow their votes to be used as cover.