RIGA - Latvia's First Party left the ruling coalition on Jan. 28, days after Prime Minister Einars Repse fired his deputy, Ainars Slesers, leaving the government in disarray and placing Janis Jurkans, a leftist largely neglected since October 2002, back in the political limelight.
Latvia's First Party decided to pull out of the Cabinet, where it held four ministerial spots, despite Repse's appeal that he was willing to continue working with it though without Slesers.
As a result the Cabinet can only muster 45 seats in the 100-seat Parliament and must depend on Jurkans' National Harmony Party, which has 14 seats, to avoid a no-confidence vote that some parties - primarily Latvia's First Party and the People's Party - are clamoring for.
This has left Repse in a precarious position since Jurkans is widely regarded as a tainted political figure due to his affiliation with the former left-wing alliance For Human Rights in a United Latvia and his much criticized visit to the Kremlin during the 2002 parliamentary elections.
New Era, however, has publicly stated that it would not invite Jurkans to the coalition, a move that would be unacceptable to nationalist coalition partners For Fatherland and Freedom and the Greens and Farmers' Union.
"There is really no alternative government," Karlis Streips, a political analyst, said.
Jurkans, in his new role as kingmaker, has stated that he would support a no-confidence vote against the Cabinet if he were offered a position in a new government. Some analysts have speculated that Jurkans might be willing to compromise with New Era on specific legislation.
"Jurkans is in a much better position in having a minority government that will have to rely on his vote in certain areas," Janis Ikstens, a political scientist, said.
But Repse's opponents have prepared for a confrontation. They already removed Inese Vaidere, an MP from For Fatherland and Freedom, from the head of the legal affairs committee, and replaced her with Rihards Piks from the People's Party. Other attacks against coalition-controlled posts are expected.
In addition, passing legislation could prove to be a challenge for the minority coalition. Repse this week promised to link the education law, which Parliament is set to vote on Feb. 5, and support for the government. A spokesman for the Education Ministry, which is run by a New Era member, said that the entire government would resign should the law fail to pass.
The diminished influence of the coalition has even caused the prime minister to propose changes in the constitution. Repse said he advocated amending the basic law to give the prime minister the power to call early elections, something only the president can currently do.
Expectedly, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga denounced the idea of changing the constitution and dismissed the prospect of dissolving Parliament. She even went so far as to say that Latvian politics remind her of a Mexican soap opera.
"At this time she doesn't see the need to dissolve Parliament. You have to take all other possible steps first," Aiva Rozenberga, the president's press secretary, said.
Some analysts believe that new elections are just what New Era wants. According to opinion polls, the party is consistently the most popular in the country. The latest by Latvijas Fakti showed that New Era had an approval rating of 27.3 percent, followed by the People's Party at 6.2 percent. Latvia's First Party had a lowly 2.3 percent.
What's more, despite instability within the coalition and scrutiny of his real estate transactions, Repse was elected head of New Era for another two years at a party conference on Jan 31. Between the rating, the booming economy and the upcoming EU accession, the prime minister seems to be warming up to the idea of elections.
But even if the minority government collapses, there is a chance that existing parties in Parliament, through a combination of alliances and defections, could squeeze together a new coalition government. If not, the president will be forced to call for new elections.