Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 39
21 June 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
A New President for Latvia

Mel Huang

After months of wondering, the Latvian people have finally discovered who would succeed Guntis Ulmanis as President of Latvia. Once the Saeima confirmed the election result, the press quickly announced it to the public: Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Her victory was no surprise - even during the latter stages of the first set of voting when a hung election was more than certain.

Going back to the first campaign

Since the vote, after all, was parliamentary, the public campaign was relatively minimal. However, it certainly helped when public support focused squarely on one candidate: Transport Minister Anatolijs Gorbunovs of Latvia's Way. In his public battles with the telephone monopoly, Lattelekom, Gorbunovs picked up a lot of cheap points with pensioners and chatterboxes.

However, coalition partner For Fatherland and Freedom campaigned strongly against Gorbunovs because of his past: for years he was the Chairman of the Latvian Supreme Soviet, as well as a functionary and ideologue in the Communist Party. For Fatherland and Freedom finds it anathema for someone with such a background to take the presidency, pushing the point at the solemn memorials of 14 June - the day when, 58 years ago, Soviet forces deported tens of thousands from Latvia and neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania (in fact, thousands of Latvians still live in Siberia today unable to find funding to return).

The credentials of the For Fatherland and Freedom candidate, Janis Priedkalns, were strong. Exiled in Australia for the period of occupation, Priedkalns is an internationally-respected scientist and academic and later became Latvia's ambassador to the United Nations.

The centre-right opposition People's Party is also pushing a former exile for President: former head of the World Federation of Free Latvians, Vaira Paegle. Days before the presidential vote, Paegle went to the US Embassy in Riga and renounced her US citizenship (she held both passports, but the law forced her to renounce her US citizenship to be a candidate for President).

The centre-left New Party ran party leader and popular composer Raimonds Pauls, much to his wife's dismay. The Social Democratic Workers' Party finally decided to nominate MP Arnis Kalnins, while the left-wing For Equal Rights in an Integrated Latvia decided not to nominate any candidate. The faction announced its support for Pauls just a day before the election.

All the controversy

However, the election itself was embroiled in some controversy. The decision by the Saeima governing board, despite protests from the opposition, established a secret vote. This comes after several powerful politicians warned of "bribery" for votes and one even stated he had been approached with several attempts to sway his vote illegally already.

Rumours quickly spread of back-room deals and secret negotiations since early rounds of the vote were not likely to produce a winner. Politicians were also working on the probability that even when the field was narrowed to two candidates it would still not produce a winner, thus "other" names as "compromise candidates" flooded the newspapers.

However, during this time, the head of the Latvian Institute, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, quietly made the rounds. Several different factions named her most frequently as the "non-party compromise candidate," and speculation grew after she announced her "readiness" to run and confirmed that she no longer held a Canadian passport.

The first set falls flat

On 17 June, election day, many analysts already predicted a hung result among the five candidates. The first round yielded the exact results predicted by each faction - thus quashing speculation of vote-buying. The second round yielded the exact same results, which forced Social Democrat Arnis Kalnins to bow out as the low-scorer with only 14 votes. Raimonds Pauls (New Party) and Vaira Paegle (People's Party) led with 24 votes each, though both were far short of the 51 needed.

The third round increased Pauls's lead to 32 votes after most Social Democrats moved to his side. The low-man on this round was Janis Priedkalns (For Fatherland and Freedom) with 17 votes.

Surprisingly, instead of choosing to back Paegle as expected, For Fatherland and Freedom declared they were "done" for the session. It appears many Social Democrats followed them since in the fourth round only 69 deputies voted. Paegle stayed on top with 24 votes, with Pauls at 23 and Anatolijs Gorbunovs (Latvia's Way) as low-man at 22. Gorbunovs was thus eliminated.

By now the conclusion was obvious. The fifth round brought Pauls a victory over Paegle by a 33 to 24 margin, but still well below the 51 needed to win. By that time, it was common knowledge that the eliminated parties already planned to nominate Vike-Freiberga to the post in the second set of elections. Seeing the inevitable outcome, Pauls withdrew his sole candidacy for the sixth round.

A new President

Soon after the end of the first set, the Saeima called for the next set to begin at 9pm local time. By then, Vike-Freiberga had already earned the endorsement of For Fatherland and Freedom, the Social Democratic Workers' Party, and the People's Party. Latvia's Way nominated popular Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs, another person rumoured earlier as a "compromise" candidate, for the second set. Also, the New Party nominated Economic Minister Ingrida Udre as their candidate.

It was not difficult to ascertain the result, as Vike-Freiberga commanded the support of 55 seats from the endorsements. The first-round results gave Vike-Freiberga 53 votes, while Birkavs won 20 and Udre 9. Latvia now joins the growing trend of women heads of state around the continent.

Who is Vaira Vike-Freiberga?

Perhaps not known well even in Latvia, Dr Vaira Vike-Freiberga has accomplished more than most people can imagine. The new President was born in Latvia, but fled when the Red Army occupied the country. Educated in Germany, Morocco and Canada, the linguist and psychologist has held academic, high governmental and NGO positions in Canada, especially among Francophone institutions. She was also a Latvian activist in exile, and she is well-known as a folklorist in addition to her trained professions.

Many political observers believe that with her experience and linguistic skills, Vike-Freiberga is an ideal individual to sell Latvia on the international stage. Though she began her post as the director of the Latvian Institute only in late 1998, many believe she can repeat the rise to popularity enjoyed by Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, another returning exile. As Vike-Freiberga has not been elected by the public, it will perhaps take her more time to earn the people's trust and favour.

But having accomplished as much as she has in her life, this is likely a challenge she savours.

Mel Huang, 18 June 1999


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