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Latvia: Voters To Choose Parliament And Decide On Citizenship Law Amendments

By Jan Cleave

Prague, 2 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Latvian voters go to the polls tomorrow (Oct. 3) to elect deputies to the Saeima (or parliament) and also to cast their ballots in a referendum on amendments to the citizenship law.

In the referendum the voters are asked whether they favor removing the so-called "naturalization windows" and granting citizenship to all children born after independence if their parents request it. The issue has dominated Latvia's politics in the run-up to election day.

But pundits will be also watching closely after the polling booths close to see which of the 21 parties competing in the elections win entry to the legislature and which of the personalities leading those parties gain the upper hand in post-election negotiations on forming a new government.

According to opinion polls, the likely winner of the elections will be the right-of-center People's Party, founded early this year and led by the charismatic former Prime Minister Andris Skele.

Since February, the People's Party has led opinion polls ahead of the two largest ruling coalition partners: the centrist Latvia's Way, a strong advocate of the amendments to the citizenship law, and the nationalist-rightist Fatherland and Freedom party, which initiated the 3 October referendum and is the only major party openly opposed to the amendments.

In a poll conducted by the Latvijas Fakti research center earlier this week, Skele's party secured 19 percent of the vote, followed by Latvia's Way (15.6 percent) and the Fatherland and Freedom party (14.1 percent).

The popularity of the People's Party may be largely attributed to Skele himself, whose reputation as a reformer was molded during his premiership from December 1995 to July 1997. During that period, Latvia had its first balanced budget and the groundwork for the country's continued economic success was laid--achievements that in the wake of the Russian financial crisis are likely to be valued by the electorate.

With regard to the issue of citizenship, Skele has said he believes the amendments are vital to Latvia's bid to join the EU and NATO and to improving the country's image abroad. His party's platform, however, does not address the issue of how to improve relations with Russia.

Another new formation whose popularity stems largely from its leader is the aptly named New Party (9.4 percent). Founded earlier this year, the New Party is led by Raimonds Pauls, who was a well known entertainer in the 1970s and 1980s. Its platform embraces both leftist and centrist ideology, promoting state control over the economy and closer ties to Russia while favoring tax cuts for private entrepreneurs as well as backing EU and, to a lesser extent, NATO membership.

The other two formations that look set to overcome the 5 percent barrier are both on the left of the political spectrum.

The Social Democratic Alliance (9.2 percent) is headed by Juris Bojars, who, as a former KGB employee, is barred from running for the Saeima. His party seeks to appeal to that part of the electorate that has suffered most under Latvia's tough economic reforms, favoring a strong role for the state in the economy.

The National Harmony Party (8.2 percent), which brings together former Communists and independence activists, also favors heavy state control over the economy and is opposed to NATO membership. Analysts suggest that the undecided voter -- 7.6 percent of the electorate, according to the latest Latvijas Fakti poll, was undecided on the eve of the elections -- may help the Farmers Union, a member of the ruling coalition, and Democratic Party Saimnieks, which quit the government earlier this year, to overcome the 5 percent hurdle.

And the so-called "shy voter" -- one who is unwilling to reveal to pollsters his preference for one of the more radical parties -- may be instrumental in assisting formations such as Joahim Zigerist's extreme nationalist Popular Movement for Latvia or Janis Jurkans's party, which is the successor to the Communists, in their bid to enter the legislature.

While it is difficult to predict the division of parliamentary mandates, analysts believe the Seventh Saeima could be even more fragmented than its predecessor. That would not bode well for the parliament. The numerous factions in the Sixth Saeima as well as the frequent changes of party membership among parliamentary deputies have been held responsible for slowing down and complicating the work of the legislature.

As for the new government, the post-election negotiations on its formation are likely to be tough and protracted. People's Party chairman Skele has made it clear he would prefer a more streamlined cabinet than the present one. Earlier this week, he told the BNS news agency that a coalition of several parties would not benefit Latvia but "two parties...would be a good result."

The opinion polls, however, would seem to suggest a different outcome.

This article is based on reporting from Riga of NCA correspondent Anthony Georgieff and information provided by RFE/RL's Riga bureau.