Parties talk on splitting the spoils

  • 2002-10-24
  • Steven C. Johnson

Einars Repse's embryonic government slowly began taking shape this week as parties began work on distributing most of the 16 ministerial portfolios.

At a meeting Oct. 21, the four parties expected to comprise the government agreed to a preliminary plan that would put Repse's New Era, which won the largest share of seats in the new Parliament, firmly at the head of the coalition with nine ministries in addition to the prime minister's office.

Key "economic bloc" ministries were split among the three junior coalition partners, with Latvia's First Party laying claims to the Economy Ministry, the Union of Greens and Farmers the Agriculture Ministry and For Fatherland and Freedom the Transport Ministry.

The four parties will control 55 seats in the 100-member Parliament.

"We have made quite a good start and the government is taking shape rather quickly. Negotiations have not been particularly difficult," said Peteris Vinkelis, an adviser to Repse.

Party representatives were expected to meet again Oct. 23 to decide who would assume the ministries of Justice, Welfare and Culture.

Vinkelis said New Era, which campaigned heavily on fighting corruption, would likely take the justice portfolio while Latvia's First Party is likely to take welfare.

Earlier, the party said it considered the Interior Ministry a priority since it was crucial to fighting corruption. Latvia has consistently ranked among the most corrupt European Union candidates in surveys by corruption watchdog Transparency International and has been urged by the EU and NATO to clean up its act.

New Era has yet to propose a new candidate for the Foreign Ministry since party member Grigorijs Krupnikovs withdrew amid accusations of financial impropriety and connections to the secret police during the Soviet era, all of which he has denied. (See related story page 4.)

The plan makes New Era the dominant force in the government, and some observers said that could suggest clashes in the future.

"Repse wants to concentrate a lot of power in the Cabinet to make sure he controls things, such as having at least half the ministers in the Cabinet," said Pauls Raudseps, an editor at the daily Diena. "But in the long run, you can't expect the other parties to always let Repse do whatever he likes."

Greens and Farmers' Chairwoman Ingrida Udre said the situation does set the stage for accusations of political favoritism should budget disputes among ministries erupt in the future.

"But we agreed early on that portfolios would be distributed proportionally, and we're going to try to make this work," she said.

New Era has also proposed creating a Ministry for Health and Social Integration, currently under the Welfare Ministry, and splitting the Environmental and Regional Development Ministry into two.

The party has also proposed a Ministry for Integration, with Latvian linguist Ina Druviete as the proposed candidate. Early on, a new agriculture minister could play a key role in EU negotiations, which Latvia expects to complete this year. The country hopes to join the EU in 2004.

Udre said the party wanted to run the Agriculture Ministry in order to fight for a better deal for Latvian farmers.

The EU has proposed that farmers in candidate countries get just one-quarter of the subsidies enjoyed by their richer counterparts in the West and has set a number of quotas which would mean dropping dairy and other kinds of production from present levels.

"Of course, we will make that a priority," Udre said. "We have to focus on that now, while we have time."