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Latvia: New Prime Minister Sees Drop In Popularity

New Latvian Prime Minister Einars Repse was probably expecting an easy ride in his first few months in office. A former central banker, Repse was seen offering a potent mix of technocratic skills and populist instincts. But it hasn't worked out that way. After 100 days in office, Repse's popularity has sunk to near zero. RFE/RL looks at what went wrong.

Prague, 21 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Latvian Prime Minister Einars Repse's New Era party swept to power last October on a populist platform promising to eliminate corruption. But the party and prime minister have had a difficult first 100 days in power, fending off corruption charges within its own ranks and alienating voters by raising ministers' pay without apparently doing much to improve the lot of average Latvians.

Repse, a former central-bank chairman and newcomer to politics, literally promised voters a "new era" in the run-up to parliamentary elections. He had won wide respect for his handling of the central bank, and his vow to drive out corruption found an echo with voters.

New Era won a plurality of 26 seats in the 100-seat Latvian parliament, enough to form a coalition government in November. Since then it has been mostly downhill.

Aigars Freimanis, the director of Latvia's Fakti polling agency, told RFE/RL that Repse's popularity has collapsed. "[In November,] nearly 70 percent of the Latvian population positively assessed his activities and some 20-25 percent were skeptical. The figures announced at the end of January, beginning of February say the popularity of Einars Repse has dramatically declined and is near zero," Freimanis said.

Freimanis said that in his opinion, Repse has only himself to blame. He said the prime minister's first mistake was to triple wages for ministers, including himself. "The first [mistake made by Repse] was to raise wages for all ministers in the government, including the prime minister himself. To be more specific, wages were raised by [more than] three times from 600 lats ($1,000) a month to 2,000 lats. It caused a stormy reaction in society," Repse said.

The average monthly salary in Latvia last year was around 170 lats ($320).

Repse's office stands by the increase. Press officer Dans Pitavs told RFE/RL that the wages were simply too low for ministers to make ends meet.

Another blow to Repse's popularity came from Health Minister Aris Auders, who is now being investigated by the country's Bureau of Corruption. Auders is suspected of taking supplementary payments from patients when he worked as a surgeon before entering politics.

So far, Repse is standing by his health minister, who survived a no-confidence vote at the end of January.

Pitavs admitted that Repse's popularity has declined but said the prime minister does not see popularity as a main aim. "Yes, it may also have had some influence for the ratings of the government, but the government doesn't think ratings are the main aim."

Janis Ikstens, an independent political analyst from Riga, said that Repse would be foolish not to take into account public opinion. Moreover, he said Repse came to power vowing to appeal to public opinion, not neglect it. "That's what they [in the government] say. And they think they found a magic formula to play down all this. But the thing is that this falling popularity is a reflection of what people think of Repse and his government and what the government does. It was exactly Repse who said before the elections that they really want to take into account what the public thinks and wants. I don't think that [they] follow this principle," Ikstens said.

Freimanis said bad public relations is one of the causes for Repse's lagging popularity. He said he thinks Repse is rather introverted, adding that he "did not try to explain the decisions he had made. He gave no comments on what was going on inside the government. He did not bother to comment on the decisions made by his ministers. At the same time, he insisted that the present government is very open, that even journalists are allowed to be present in the government sessions and so on. [He was confident] there was no need to make any other public-relations campaigns and try to explain some decisions to society."

Pitavs said the government will do more to improve its image but emphasized that election promises are being fulfilled. "Successes [in fighting corruption] are already seen in the fact that the budget revenues are increasing and tax payments reached record heights in December. They are at the same level in January. It is a sign that people who were involved in some illegal activities are trying to rethink their behavior," Pitavs said.

Analysts say there is some hope for Repse. The polls show that while the prime minister's personal approval ratings may be down, the New Era party's ratings have only dropped a couple of percentage points.