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Latvia: Elections Unlikely To Impact Riga's Moves Toward EU, NATO

Parliamentary elections are to take place in Latvia on 5 October. Polls indicate turnout will be high and that several rightist parties should be able to form the majority in the new parliament. Analysts say the results mean Latvia will likely remain on course toward joining NATO and the European Union -- Latvia's main foreign-policy goals.

Prague, 3 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Parliamentary elections will take place in Latvia on 5 October, the fourth general elections in the Baltic country since it regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Some 1.5 million eligible voters will go to the polls to elect 100 members of parliament for a four-year period. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is sending a team to observe the elections.

Under the Latvian Constitution, the president nominates the head of government. Usually, the leader of the list that receives the most votes forms the cabinet. Each party or bloc of parties must receive at least 5 percent of the total votes to be represented in parliament.

The parties currently in parliament are the People's Party with 25 seats, Latvia's Way with 20 seats, For Fatherland and Freedom Party with 15 seats, For Human Rights in a United Latvia with 16 seats, Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party with 12 seats, Social Democrats Union with five seats, and seven independent members. The leader of Latvia's Way, Andris Berzins, is the prime minister.

Aigars Freimanis, director of Latvias Fakti, an agency that conducts opinion polls in Latvia, told RFE/RL that recent surveys indicate a shift in the composition of parliament. He said polls conducted at the beginning of this week show that three political parties look likely to receive from 15 to 20 percent of the vote each.

The leader is the center-right People's Party, led by former Prime Minister Andris Skele. Surveys indicate it may gain from 15 to 16 percent of the vote.

Freimanis said a new strong player has recently appeared on the Latvian political scene. It is the newly formed center-right party New Time. Surveys show it has nearly the same level of support as the People's Party. "This party also says it has a rightist economic program. It is very hard to find out what makes this party different from older parties. The main difference that the party's leader insistently states is that it will fight corruption," Freimanis said.

Einars Repse, the charismatic leader of the party, is former chairman of the Latvian Central Bank. He said his party will make no coalitions with other parties in a future parliament. Repse insists that all those who are in power have completely discredited themselves.

Freimanis said New Time has chosen a strange campaign tactic: not campaigning. Recent polls suggest, however, that support for the party is declining.

The left-wing bloc For Human Rights in a United Latvia holds third place in the polls. Freimanis said this party looks likely to gain from 14 to 20 percent of the vote. "This is the party mainly supported by non-Latvians who have Latvian citizenship. I think it will not change during these elections. The leader, Janis Jurkans, was former Latvian minister of foreign affairs in the beginning of the 1990s. And what is very important, Alfreds Rubiks, a leader of Latvian communists, is also taking part in this coalition," Freimanis said.

Rubiks is one of the most unpopular politicians in the country, largely due to his role in opposing Latvia's independence from the Soviet Union.

Freimanis said all Latvian political parties have publicly announced they will never form coalitions with the left-wing bloc led by Jurkans. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently received Jurkans in the Kremlin. Freimanis said left-wing parties in Latvia are associated with pro-Russian policies. "[Jurkans'] bloc is against Latvian membership in NATO, advocates introducing Russian as the second state language in the country, advocates giving citizenship to all Latvian residents, and so on," Freimanis said.

Voters, the majority of whom are ethnic Latvians, do not support these policies. Freimanis said that after the elections, Latvian relations with Russia will likely remain the same as now, slightly strained over the rights of the Russian-speaking minority in the country.

Janis Ikstens is a senior analyst at the Social Institute of Social Sciences, a think tank based in Latvia. He said the three parties considered to be the front-runners have no clear economic programs. The left-wing bloc For Human Rights in a United Latvia keeps a low profile on economic issues, while there is no big difference in the economic programs of the People's Party and New Time. "Both of them want to fight corruption and improve tax collection. Both of them want to have reforms in the health-care system. So the distinction between the two lies in personalities," Ikstens said.

So, what topics dominate the election campaign? Ikstens believes the election is notable for its lack of notable themes. "Nothing. I mean, there is just general talk that we should do 'something' about 'something,' but there is no pointed discussion about any of those issues. You know, everybody says that we should do something to fight corruption, but nobody can come up with certain and clear ideas as to how to do it," Ikstens said.

However, polls show turnout is likely to be high, with more than 70 percent of voters saying they will cast votes.

Next summer, the new parliament is due to elect the president. Freimanis said Vaira Vike-Freiberga is most likely to remain president for a second term. She was elected president in the summer of 1999, becoming the first female president in Central and Eastern Europe.