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Latvia: People's Party Wins Elections, Citizenship Laws Passed

Riga, 5 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Latvians elected a streamlined Saeima (parliament) over the weekend. But prospects for the formation of a stable government remain uncertain.

Only six of the 21 political parties and coalitions running in the elections succeeded in reaching the 5 percent requirement for winning seats in the 100-member parliament. That is down from the nine parties represented in the outgoing legislature.

The biggest winner was the right-of-center People's Party of Andris Skele, an economist and former prime minister. His party won about 21 percent of the vote (24 seats). Second place went to the left-leaning Latvia's Way Party of Andrejs Pantelejevs (about 18.5 percent and 21 seats).

They were followed by the nationalist Fatherland and Freedom Party (about 14 percent and 17 seats), and three leftist groups: the People's Union Party (14.5 percent and 16 seats), the Social Democrats (13 percent and 14 seats), and the New Party (about 8 percent and 8 seats).

Several large parties, which played major roles in the outgoing Saeima, failed to clear the five percent electoral barrier.

Commenting on the large number of socialists in the new Saeima, Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis said it showed there is a strong leftist electorate in the country.

Ulmanis said he would try to appoint a new prime minister by November 3, when parliament is due to meet for the first time.

But if history is a guide, Latvia may be in for some waiting. It took almost half a year after the last elections in 1995 for a new government to take office. And the leaders of the two top vote-winning parties in Saturday's voting have strained relations.

Also on Saturday, Latvians, if by a less-than comfortable majority (about 53 to 45 percent), also approved amendments to the country's citizenship laws. The most important will grant citizenship to some 18,000 children born after independence in 1991. These children, born mainly to ethnic-Russian parents, have, until now, been stateless.

Another change will bring the abolition of the intricate "windows" system whereby younger citizenship applicants are given preference over elderly ones.

The legal changes will not ease rigid conditions on language proficiency, knowledge of history, and other things.

The international community watched the outcome of the referendum vote closely. In recent weeks, Moscow had accused Latvia of using "brutal, repressive measures" to discriminate against Russian-speakers. And the West had pressed Latvia to change its citizenship laws to meet western standards.

The Russian government today praised the referendum result. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin said it showed the Latvian people realized that only through "inter-ethnic harmony" could relations with Russia be improved.

Western officials also praised the outcome, saying it should bolster Latvia's integration into European institutions.

Ulmanis said that the result of the referendum provides a "good basis" for making the political dialogue with Russia more "active." And he said that one of the priorities of the new Saeima should be to adopt a law on the state language. The passage of such a law was postponed by the outgoing Saeima.

International monitors said the elections had been "free and fair," though they noted that some 650,000 ethnic Russians (in a country of 2.5 million) were not allowed to participate.