Social Democrats take Riga

  • 2001-03-29
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - Gundars Bojars, the Social Democratic Workers' Party mayoral candidate for the Latvian capital, dinched the Riga City Council election on March 27 by ousting incumbent Andris Argalis of the For Fatherland and Freedom party by a small margin.

Bojars received 31 votes in the 60-seat council, a narrow majority that has prompted questions about the strength of the Social Democrats' coalition.

Just before councilors voted, Bojars smiled and told The Baltic Times he was very optimistic, and that he had no doubts about the outcome.

There have been ominous rumors about the stability of the parliamentary coalition should there be a power swing in Riga's municipal government. Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins told reporters after the election that he saw no threat to the coalition government.

"The government and the city council are not related," he said.

Berzins did, however, express concern over Bojars' narrow victory, saying 31 votes out of 60 are too few for any degree of stability.

All 60 Councilors participated in the vote, which ended with 31 votes for Bojars, 26 for Argalis and three abstentions. The Social Democrats together with the leftist alliance For Human Rights in a United Latvia, as well as the Welfare Party and the Labor Party had a total of 30 votes. It is not known who threw in the decisive supporting vote for Bojars.

The previous ruling coalition did not help itself by its wheeling and dealing with the smaller parties on the City Council. Karlis Streips, a political commentator, said the center bloc parties betrayed the ruling coalition, since they had made pledges to support their candidate.

The leaders of the ruling coalition before the mayoral election - For Fatherland and Freedom, the People's Party and Latvia's Way - had agreed to support Argalis. But without support from the smaller parties they would not have had enough votes to sustain Argalis' position.

Streips said Bojars, the son of Social Democrats head and former KGB officer Juris Bojars, was supported by people who believe that Russian should be an official language in Riga and that more Russian schools should be opened.

"Riga has now elected a 34-year-old man with a questionable higher education who is actually from the town of Liepaja," said Streips.

The head of For Fatherland and Freedom, Maris Grinblats, said he was not disappointed, admitting that the election was a great victory for the leftists.

"We are ready to work in opposition, and we hope we can form a coalition with the People's Party and Latvia's Way," Grinblats said.

The new mayor told reporters he hoped the new ruling coalition could work together with opposition councilors for the benefit of Riga's residents.

"Asphalt is asphalt. It is neither right nor left," he said.

Bojars also expressed gratitude to his rival for helping him win support in the election and said he hoped Argalis would be there to give him more advice in the future.

Argalis, however, said he did not want to become a deputy mayor, a position the Social Democrats apparently intended to offer him. He also expressed a lack of enthusiasm for taking a leading position on any commissions.

"What would it look like if the former mayor sat next to the new mayor?" he asked reporters rhetorically. "I am ready to work in favor of Rigans from morning to evening as a bench member of the council."

It is not entirely clear what the Social Democrats have in mind for Riga in future. They are emphasizing issues such as improved social handouts, children's safety and a secure education.

"I think we can forget all the campaign promises and wait and see how reality will be dealt with," Streips said.

President of the Foreign Investors' Council in Latvia Monty Akesson said that his organization does not take political sides or favor any of the parties.

"We hope, of course, that the new ruling coalition does what is best for the municipality and local business," Akesson said. "We also hope political changes don't mean that ongoing obligations will change."

Many members of the newly elected ruling coalition say they are aware of what the next step will be.

Alexander Gilman of For Human Rights in a United Latvia said his party will try to form a stable coalition with the Social Democrats along with the smaller centrist parties on the council. He added that this venture could be difficult.

"I cannot say what is most important for Riga politically, not until the Social Democrats start to take action," Gilman said.