Latvian President Fails in Re-election Bid

By Mike Collier

Latvian President Valdis Zatlers lost his bid for a second term Thursday to rival Andris Berzins, an ex-banker, just days after he demanded a snap general election to root out corruption.

Latvia’s head of state is elected by the Baltic nation’s 100-member parliament, where Zatlers received 41 votes against 53 for Berzins.

Berzins hailed lawmakers for their support, in the wake of an unprecedented constitutional clash between Zatlers and the single-chamber Saeima.

“I give thanks for the honour the Saeima has shown in entrusting me with this important post,” the 66-year-old told journalists.

“I hope society will assess me on my deeds… I will not follow the lead of oligarchs or special interests,” he vowed.

Zatlers’s call to end the clout of powerful businessman-politicians, dubbed oligarchs, added spice to a vote already scheduled before he moved Saturday to dissolve parliament.

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’s centre-right Unity bloc backed Zatlers, who struck a chord in this nation of 2.2 million amid a biting austerity drive.

“The majority in parliament has not respected the public demand for a policy that is free of the oligarchs’ influence and has punished Valdis Zatlers for his courage,” he said.

Other MPs were less flattering.

Sergejs Mirskis, of the left-leaning, pro-Russian opposition Harmony Centre, said Zatlers had “spat in the eye” of the public by seeking to dissolve parliament.

The presidential vote split Latvia’s government — Berzins was nominated by Dombrovskis’ coalition partner the Greens and Farmers Alliance, or ZZS.

Political commentator Aivars Ozolins of the Ir news weekly slammed Thursday’s vote, saying ZZS and Harmony Centre appeared to have cut a deal.

“All we saw here today was basically theatre,” he said.

The non-partisan Zatlers, who gave up a medical career to become president in 2007, had repeatedly urged MPs to restore the public’s faith in politicians.

He demanded the snap election after lawmakers last week hampered an anti-corruption probe of lawmaker Ainars Slesers, one of Latvia’s richest men, by refusing to waive his immunity.

Slesers heads the pro-business opposition For A Good Latvia movement, whose other leader Andris Skele is also under investigation.

ZZS kingpin Aivars Lembergs is likewise being probed.

Slesers Thursday accused Zatlers of “double standards”.

Zatlers was himself spotlighted in 2007 after admitting he accepted “gifts” as a doctor. But he later won support from anti-graft activists for his accountability drive.

Kristaps Petermanis, chairman of the Latvian branch of Transparency International, was among around 250 protesters outside parliament Thursday who chanted “Resign!” when Berzins emerged and attempted a brief walkabout.

“Parliament demonstrated that it hasn’t learned anything,” he told AFP. “The question now is whether this will motivate society enough to vote out the old system in September’s parliamentary election.”

Zatlers’ mandate ends on July 7.

His defeat will not halt the dissolution process, however.

Voters are expected to approve his decision in a July 23 referendum required under the constitution, triggering a snap election in September.

Latvians last voted in October 2010, handing Dombrovskis a new mandate to form the 16th government since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Analysts say renewed wrangling is unlikely to have major economic impact.

In 2008 Latvia was forced to seek a 7.5-billion-euro ($10.7-billion) bailout after its overheated economy went bust.

Output shrank by 18 percent in 2009 and, despite green shoots, unemployment is still almost 17 percent.

Berzins will be Latvia’s fourth president since 1991.

Zatlers succeeded plain-speaking Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who over two terms won national and global respect and steered Latvia into the European Union and NATO in 2004.