Social Dems court older voters

  • 2002-10-03
  • Steven C. Johnson

With their poll numbers on the decline, the Social Democratic Workers Party began rallying what many see as its core constituency last week with an offer of free public transport for pensioners.

The Riga City Council, headed by Social Democrat Mayor Gundars Bojars, said Riga residents aged 65 and older may ride the city's trams, buses and trolleybuses for free on weekends beginning Oct. 5, the day Latvians are due to elect a new Parliament.

City officials say the scheme is part of a one-month trial to determine whether a similar system can be implemented full-time in the future.Guntars Kukuls, a Bojars spokesman, said the plan had been discussed for several months and denied its timing was tied to bolstering the party's showing in national elections.

A recent public opinion poll put the party, which has nine seats in the national Saeima (Latvia's parliament), at just 4.8 percent support. It must win more than 5 percent of the vote to remain in the legislature.

"What is the City Council supposed to do, stop all activity because it's election time," he asked. "Of course, this might influence some people, but the national government also tries everything to influence voters at elections."

But Councilman Dainis Ivans said there was no reason why the party should be ashamed of courting pensioners, who he says deserve better leaders looking out for their interests.

"Our support in the municipal election last year came from pensioners and low-income people, and we planned this action some months ago to be made before elections because it can really be a help for us," said Ivans, who will move into the Parliament should the Social Democrats win seats. "Pensioners have been our most active supporters because we are one of the few parties interested in them."

The average pension in Latvia, according to 2001 figures, is 58 lats (98 euros) per month.

Kukuls said the future of the program depended on how many more pensioners use public transport and the cost of reimbursing Riga's two public transportation companies for the lost revenue.

Public transport tickets in Riga cost 0.20 lat. During off-peak hours, pensioners are entitled to half-price tickets. School children and those with physical handicaps from grades one to six can ride for free.

The Social Democrats swept into power in city elections last year, the first time a left-wing party has been at the helm of a the country's capital since independence in 1991.

In addition to heavy support from pensioners and lower-income voters, the party benefited from widespread disenchantment with the center-right parties in the national government.

Since then, the party has endured an acrimonious split at the national level and been mired in several building and procurement scandals in Riga that have cut into its support.

"This is a pre-election ploy, and that's because they cannot plausibly run as a protest party of outsiders after running the Riga City Council and being implicated in various scandals," said political commentator Karlis Streips.