Opposition victorious in local elections

  • 2001-03-15
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - The Social Democratic Workers' Party declared unprecedented success in municipal elections across Latvia on March 11. Party leader Juris Bojars said negotiations are under way with the For Fatherland and Freedom party to form a coalition in the Riga City Council, which would exclude the parties dominating the national government - Latvia's Way and the People's Party.

Aivars Ozolins, a columnist at Latvia's largest daily newspaper Diena, said the effect of the results on the national government would become apparent only when the shape of Riga Council has been finalized.

"The vote in Riga was a huge protest against the national government," he said.

Karlis Streips, a leading political commentator, said the Social Democrats' success was probably a protest against poverty, rather than a backlash against Latvia's larger strategic goals such as membership of the European Union and NATO.

The Social Democrats won 23.4 percent of the vote in Riga, giving them 14 seats on the Council. They were closely followed by the left-wing For Human Rights in a United Latvia (21.4 percent, 13 seats) and the conservative For Fatherland and Freedom (17.3 percent, 11 seats).

Trailing behind were the People's Party of former Prime Minister Andris Skele (10.3 percent, six seats) and Latvia's Way, the party of current Prime Minister Andris Berzins (8.7 percent, five seats). A cluster of small parties won between one and two seats each.

A surprise result came from the eastern city of Daugavpils, with the toppling of the leftwing City Party, which, under Mayor Aleksejs Vidavskis has ruled the Council since the restoration of Latvia's independence.

Latgale's Light, led by local businessman Rihards Eigims and formed especially for this election won a decisive victory there.

In the port city of Ventspils the incumbent For Ventspils and Latvia party led by Mayor Aivars Lembergs proved itself invulnerable to a much publicized challenge by Latvia's Way.

"We were fighting windmills," said Latvia's Way challenger Raitis Ziemelis, speaking to Baltic News Service. "But we'll stay here, expressing our opinion and breathing down the back of their necks."

For the first time, For Ventspils and Latvia did lose one seat to another party - the Social Democrats.

In Riga there are conflicting signals over the formation of a coalition. Bojars seems determined to unseat Latvia's Way and the People's Party. An agreement with For Fatherland and Freedom and "other parties" has been initialed, but not finalized, he said.

"We'll make a new government in Riga and in many other municipalities" said Bojars. "This was a resolute vote against the ruling national parties. There will be very radical changes. They won't tell us how to govern Riga."

Bojars said the Social Democrats "insist" on replacing Mayor Andris Argalis, of For Fatherland and Freedom, with one of their own. "It's our legitimate aim," he said. Argalis has consistently been rated highly in public opinion polls.

With Latvia's Way winning 79 seats outside Riga, board member Aija Matule said the results were not a "total disappointment." But she acknowledged voters had protested against the national government. Latvia's Way had not ruled out joining the coalition in Riga, she said.

"The Social Democrats ran a very general campaign, so this was a protest against our long term in power," Matule said. "The ball is in their court to accept us in the coalition or not."

Streips said the Social Democrats' success was a protest vote "to some extent." Poverty, which featured strongly in Social Democrat campaigning, was probably the main complaint, he said.

Despite its strong showing, the For Human Rights in a United Latvia coalition will not be allowed into the Riga coalition, Streips predicts. The result will make little difference to Riga's residents, he thinks.

"Things already in the pipeline for Riga won't be diverted. Under the Social Democrats the ongoing discussions of transport and housing problems won't change," he said.

The anonymity of Riga Council means voters there are more likely to protest at the national government than elsewhere, says Diena's Ozolins. But the Social Democrats' success in Riga will not necessarily damage the government, he says.

"If there is a leftwing coalition we could see a lot of interesting things in terms of distribution of wealth and resources which might damage the Social Democrats at the next general election. If the three parties in the national government join the Social Democrats in Riga this could also strengthen the national government.

"The national government will also be secure if Argalis remains as mayor. But the Social Democrats' national leaders will try to use Riga Council to bring down the government," he said.

Talis Tisenkopfs, head of Latvia University's sociology department hailed the record 61.99 percent turnout of voters for a municipal election as a success for Latvian democracy.

The 35.16 percent turnout in Zalesje county, eastern Latvia, where all candidates came from one association, was an exception rather than the norm, he said. Across Latvia turnout was 5 percent higher than at the last municipal elections.

"The high level of participation shows the population has a new understanding and willingness to express itself and its political opinions," said Tisenkopfs. "This is the only way in which people have learnt to participate in politics, but we might expect other forms of participation to grow."