RIGA - Latvia underwent its most turbulent political week in years, with the government of Prime Minister Einars Repse tendering its resignation and forcing President Vaira Vike-Freiberga to conduct a series of delicate negotiations to come up with a new parliamentary majority.
One of the most dramatic twists occurred Feb. 9, when it was announced that five leftist MPs had switched allegiance from the National Harmony Party to Latvia's First Party, the right-of-center group that dropped out of the ruling coalition on Jan. 28 after Repse fired one of its ministers.
The mass defection marked a remarkable change of fortune for Latvia's First Party, which will now head into the revamped Parliament with 15 seats.
To complicate matters, the defections themselves could backfire, since the five MPs (four are ethnic Russians) belonged to elements of the opposition that are strongly critical of the country's education reform and therefore are not trusted by nationalist factions such as the For Fatherland and Freedom party.
Indeed, the defectors did not hide their ulterior motive. "For the first time in the last 13 years, lawmakers elected by a mostly Russian-speaking electorate have a chance to solve the so-called Russian issue in a democratic and parliamentary manner, being in the ruling coalition instead of the opposition," they said in a statement.
Leftist lawmakers slammed the defections, with the National Harmony Party leader Janis Jurkans referring to the five as traitors. In an interview with the Russian-language daily Telegraf, he even claimed that MPs from his party had been offered 50,000 lats (74,500 euros) - 75,000 lats for joining the future ruling coalition. Jurkans claimed similar offers were also made to New Era lawmakers as well.
Latvia's First Party defended the decision to bring leftists on board its faction. "We are sure that as of today we can with full responsibility call ourselves a party that promotes social harmony on the foundations of Christian and spiritual values and that does not permit the forming of enemy portraits in society," said Eriks Jekabsons, deputy parliamentary speaker and party leader.
His aide, Edgars Vaikulis, summed up the party's new weight by saying, "I believe that the growth of our faction marks the existence of fresh breezes in Latvian politics - the strengthening of center parties attesting to European values."
Still, by the time The Baltic Times went to press Feb. 11 morning it was unclear how negotiations would pan out. Some observers were talking about a supra-right majority that would include New Era (26 seats), the People's Party (20), Latvia's First Party (15 after defections), the Greens and Farmers Union (12) and For Fatherland and Freedom (7).
And although he originally called such an idea "absurd," Repse said that he would be willing to work with the People's Party, an adversary, and For Fatherland and Freedom, on certain conditions (see box).
"New Time is not rushing head over heels to join any kind of formation or coalition. We have our stable partners - FF/LNNK - but that's not enough to form a government. There may be enough if the People's Party joined, but the main thing is on what principles: whether its for taking hold of power in order to split up spheres of interest, or whether to take the power and really work in the interests of the state," Repse told public radio on Feb. 10.
If Repse were to come to an agreement with the People's Party, this would allow a new three-party coalition without Latvia's First Party, which is now tainted among many nationalists for the presence of the defector-leftists in its ranks.
"We are refraining from talks with Latvia's First Party for now because it is unclear who they really are - a right-wing national party or not," For Fatherland and Freedom faction head Maris Grinblats said.
But given the outgoing PM's uncompromising style, many wondered whether New Era, which by far has the highest ranking in Latvia, would pull off a deal or instead hedge its bets for new parliamentary elections.
"We are of course prepared to overcome ourselves and reach a compromise," said Repse. "On the other hand, if someone expects that we will trample our principles and betray them simply to continue to remain in power, then of course we will never do this. If for this reason the democratically elected Parliament approves some other Cabinet, then that's the way it will have to be."
Many insiders were critical of Repse and saw the new elections-scenario in the prime minister's actions. Venstpils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, one of Latvia's richest and most powerful people, claimed that Repse had been hoping since October 2002, when he came to power, that the coalition partners would withdraw.
"Thus he would be the victim, no new government would be set up, and even the president would not be able to set up a new government without his permission and would be forced to stage a referendum for new parliamentary elections," Lembergs said Feb. 9.
Regardless, the president went about her duties creating a new government diligently. Vike-Freiberga said after completing the first round of negotiations she found that the parties did have "political will" and that they could find a "common language."
The president did stress that she had not found a specific person who could form the government. "We were not talking about specific persons at all. The first consultations were about general principles underlying the new government forming, and I got conviction there are no deep ideological obstacles for parties to cooperate," she said.