25/05/2007 - D-7
"When Vaira Vike-Freiberge was elected in 1999 she won through at the end of the race as a last-minute compromise. Who knows who will be the last minute candidate this time?" mused political science professor Andris Runcis at the University of Latvia.
In fact two candidates emerged recently:
- Valdis Zatlers, directors of the casualty and orthopaedic hospital in Riga.
- Aivars Endzins, former president of the Constitutional Court.
Valdis Zatlers, was officially appointed on 22nd May by the four parties in the government coalition, the People's Party (TP) led by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, Latvia's First-Latvia's Way (LPP-LC), the Union of Farmers and Greens (ZZS) and the Union for the Fatherland and Freedom (TB/LNNK). The head of the parliamentary group of the Union of Farmers and Greens, Augusts Brigmanis, welcomed the choice of Valdis Zatlers and congratulated the People's Party and Latvia's First-Latvia's Way for relinquishing their own candidates: Maris Riekstins, present advisor to Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis and Karina Petersone, Vice-President of the Saiema (the only chamber in parliament) and present Culture Minister.
We know little of 52 year old Valdis Zatlers, a graduate of the Riga School of Medicine (1979) and director of the casualty and orthopaedic hospital in Riga since 1994. He was an active member of the Popular Front at the end of 1980's when Latvia won back its independence. The candidate has just opened an internet site (www.zatlers.blogspot.com) to enable his fellow countrymen to get to know him better. In 2003, Valdis Zatlers was already the focus of the news when the then Health Minister, Aris Auders (New Era, JL) launched an enquiry by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (KNAB) into his activities within the casualty and orthopaedic hospital in Riga. At that time Valdis Zatlers was suspended from his post of director which did not reveal anything illegal with regard to his activities. Tension within the political community might very well rekindle these attacks which would lead to doubts about his integrity. The government coalition's candidate slightly surprised the public when he declared last year in the press that "people who mocked Mahomet were entirely free to do so but they had to understand that those who worshipped Mahomet were also free to kill them."
One of the keys to the election and the explanation of this choice probably lies in the aversion of the political community in Latvia for a strong, active presidency. The outgoing President succeeded in asserting herself as a political and moral reference beyond party allegiance, with great skill and true efficiency in the international arena; she bowled the political community over since they would not have known how to provide Latvia with such a high international profile. We may suppose that the present majority are looking for a candidate who will be less charismatic and have less political influence than his illustrious predecessor. From this point of view only one candidate might be compared with the present president: Sandra Kalniete, an historic figure of the fight for independence, a high-ranking diplomat and an atypical woman politician, known and acknowledged outside of Latvia. But will Latvia be able to overcome its partisan rifts? We might suppose not. It is highly likely that if the present political format asserts itself the next Latvian president will be a more discreet person who is more involved in domestic politics.
During the evening of 24th May Sandra Kalniete, former Foreign Minister in the government led by Einars Repse (New Era, JL) and former European Commissioner in the Commission led by Romano Prodi and until now the main opposition party New Era's (JL) candidate withdrew from the Presidential race and called on MPs to support the candidature of Aivars Endzins, former president of the Constitutional Court who has become their last minute candidate (all those wanting to stand had to declare their intentions before 26th May).
Aivars Endzins, a founder, with others, of Latvian Way and president of the Constitutional Court from 1996 to 2006, is presently director of the public law department of the Law Faculty at the School for Business Administration in Turiba. He is greatly respected. He agreed to stand in the presidential election "so that it is more democratic and that MPs can really choose between two independent candidates." Aivars Endzins has the support of the Harmony Centre, a Russian speaking opposition party led by former journalist of the First Baltic Channel, Nils Usakovs, who made a breakthrough in the last general election on 7th October 2006 (14.42% of the vote and 17 seats). "Over the last ten years with Aivars Endzins as president the Constitutional Court has been independent," said Nils Usakovs maintaining that this "proved Aivars Endzins ability to place himself beyond passionate sentiments and political battles and to take completely independent decisions."
So the election on 31st May is an extremely open one. In theory the government coalition has an absolute majority in the Saeima, 57 members, but Aivars Endzins may win a number of votes over to his name. However nothing has yet been settled since it is a secret ballot and MPs might not follow voting advice provided by their parties. The Latvians who are not called to choose their future President were invited to choose between three candidates on 25th May during a TV programme "What's new in Latvia?" on the public channel LTV. The choice being between: Valdis Zatlers, Sandra Kalniete and Aivars Endzins. The latter easily took the lead winning 15,420 votes versus 4,230 for the New Era candidate who officially was no longer a candidate but who learned a great deal from this experience – and 3,842 for Valdis Zatlers.
Finally the authorities announced that the election, initially planned for 6th June will now take place on 31st May. Indulis Emsis (ZZS), the Saiema's spokesperson, when interviewed about the reasons for these changes simply replied that 31st May was a "good date."
In fact the first round might not lead to the election of one of the two candidates. A second round will be organised 10 days later. New candidates might emerge. The result of this election is more open than ever before.