• 2001-03-15
Latvian voters, who turned out in large numbers at polling stations last Sunday, overwhelmingly supported the left-leaning parties which form the opposition in the national parliament: the Social Democratic Workers' Party and For Human Rights in a United Latvia, which are led by former KGB major, Juris Bojars and ex-Communist leader, Alfreds Rubiks, respectively. In Riga alone the two won a 27 seats on the 60-seat council in all, the Social Democrats taking 14 and For Human Rights, campaigners for the Russian-speaking population, winning 13, according to preliminary results.

This must have surprised the ruling liberal parties which spent hundreds of thousands of lats on their pre-election campaigns. Latvia's Way certainly expected to do better, while the measly six seats won by the People's Party was even worse than expected, despite a massive advertising campaign. Incumbent parties only did well where one of their own members was mayor, and that person had gained a reputation for good leadership.

Tough choices now face all the winners. The exception, perhaps, is Ventspils, where no one could defeat Aivars Lembergs, who has been king of this wealthy port city for more than 10 years. But in Riga where decisions affect the stability of the central government, this is a decisive moment.

If the parties governing at national level - Latvia's Way, the People's Party and in particular For Fatherland and Freedom, which managed to take third place in Riga, can create a stable coalition by bringing the smaller parties on board, thus excluding the victorious Social Democrats and For Human Rights, long live the government!

But given the current distribution of seats and the small parties' talk of arrogant grandees in Latvia's Way and the People's Party this scenario seems unlikely.

The next best option - a coalition between the Social Democrats and For Fatherland and Freedom - seems more realistic, but for Bojars' stubborn demands for a Social Democrats mayor, namely, his son, Gundars. Despite Gundars Bojars' role as deputy speaker of parliament he lacks the high profile of charismatic Fatherland Mayor Andris Argalis, who consistently tops popularity polls.

Opinions on what's best for the country vary. Some newspapers, like local business daily Dienas Bizness think the newcomers should be allowed to prove their self-proclaimed competence at municipal level, while the ruling parties take a break and reconsider their recent greediness in the course of the privatization of state property. Others, such as the influential newspaper Diena, seem to have started a campaign to fend off any attempt by Fatherland to betray its partners in the national government.

The Social Democrats' victory is more of a protest vote than an overwhelming show of support for socialist ideas. The ruling parties therefore would do well to take this lesson seriously, as they prepare for the next test of voters' confidence - the 2002 parliamentary elections.