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Saturday, 5 October, 2002, 06:22 GMT 07:22 UK
Political novice strides onto Latvia stage
Einars Repse on the campaign trail
New Era: Einars Repse is a strong contender for the premiership
The polls have opened in Latvia to elect the country's fourth parliament since independence in 1991.

The new government, expected to be from the centre-right, is likely to take the country into the European Union, and possibly into Nato.

Andris Berzins
On the way out: Prime Minister Andris Berzins
With two parties in the outgoing coalition floundering in the polls, the race to come top in the election is between a third coalition party - the People's Party - and a brand new party, New Era.

The latest poll suggests that these parties are neck and neck, each with roughly 14% support.

The same poll suggests that the Latvia's Way party of Prime Minister Andris Berzins, and the Union for Fatherland and Freedom, one of its coalition partners, could struggle to cross the 5% threshold for representation in parliament.

Whizz kid

The New Era party is led by the former head of Latvia's Central Bank, Einars Repse, whose impressive performance is attributed to his personal charisma and reputation for honesty


Before every election there is a tradition in Latvia of some newcomer promising to deliver everything

Prime Minister Andris Berzins
Latvians know Mr Repse as a whizz kid who took over the Central Bank at the age of 30 and steered the country's economy through the tricky post-Soviet years.

He managed the replacement of the Russian rouble by a stable national currency, the lat, that is seen as marking the beginning of Latvia's economic revival.

He stepped down from the bank 10 months ago, set up his party, and has topped almost all popularity polls since.

Corruption

Analysts say it was discontent with the government, including accusations of corruption, that opened the political door for Mr Repse.


This election is not about Nato and the EU at all, but it should be

Zaneta Ozolina, Latvian University
Latvia ranked 52nd out of 102 countries in a corruption index drawn up by the Transparency International consultancy this year - putting it together with Sri Lanka, Morocco, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Efforts to privatize the Latvian Shipping Co., one of the largest state-owned companies, have failed four times since 1995 and have led to the demise of two governments amid unproven allegations of bribery.

Mr Repse's political rivals say they had to make unpopular decisions, while he was sheltered from the political storm in his office in the Central Bank.

"Before every election there is a tradition in Latvia of some newcomer promising to deliver everything," says Prime Minister Berzins.

High expectations

Two of the most important issues regarding Latvia's future - entry into Nato and the European Union - have not been major issues in the campaign, because all right-wing parties are in favour.

"This election is not about Nato and the EU at all, but it should be as these are the all-important issues for Latvia, and not the petty squabbles we've seen in this campaign," said Zaneta Ozolina, a politics professor at the Latvian University.

Latvia firmly expects an invitation to join Nato at a summit in Prague in November and to enter the European Union in 2004.

Msot analysts expect the result to be a broad centre-right coalition with either Mr Repse or three-times premier Andris Skele - head of the People's Party - at the helm.

This would ensure reforms along Western market lines are kept on track.

See also:

29 Sep 02 | Europe
29 Sep 02 | Country profiles
20 Jul 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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