Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 118

The Latvian parliament yesterday narrowly elected Vaira Vike-Freiberga as the country’s new president. Vike-Freiberga will replace the incumbent President Guntis Ulmanis, whose powers are due to expire on July 7. Ulmanis was elected to three-year terms in 1993 and 1996 and is not eligible to run a third time. In the meantime, constitutional amendment has extended the presidential term of office to four years.

With Vike-Freiberga’s election, Latvia becomes the second Baltic state to elevate a personality from the diaspora in North America as president of the liberated country. Lithuania was the first to do so in 1998 with the election of the Lithuanian-American Valdas Adamkus as president. Vike-Freiberga–who was born in Riga in 1937 and fled the Soviet occupation in 1944 with her family–returned to Latvia last year from Canada where she spent most of her life. A psychology professor at the University of Montreal from 1965-98, she was actively involved in the diaspora’s cultural activities and is a leading expert on Latvian folk songs, which constitute a major form of national self-expression in Latvia, as in the other two Baltic states. She gave up Canadian citizenship shortly before the presidential election in order to be eligible to run.

The 100-member parliament gave Vike-Freiberga 53 votes, two more than the minimum necessary for a majority. She received the support of the two conservative parties–the People’s Party and Fatherland and Freedom, which hold 24 and 17 seats, respectively–as well as that of the Social-Democrats, who control 14 seats and at times hold the balance of power in parliament. Vike-Freiberga, a nonparty figure, was nominated by the Social-Democrats after five rounds of balloting in parliament had failed to produce a winner.

Vike-Freiberga defeated Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs, the nominee of Latvia’s Way–the main governing party, which holds parliamentary seats–in the final round of balloting. Latvian Way’s first nominee, Anatolijs Gorbunovs–who had preceded Ulmanis as head of state from 1990 to 1993 and remains one of the country’s most consistently popular politicians–was defeated in the third round. Vaira Paegle, former chairwoman of the World Union of Free Latvians, currently a parliamentary deputy of the People’s Party, narrowly lost in the fifth round after proving to be one of the strongest candidates in this contest. Her background as a political refugee, leader of the diaspora in the United States and recent returnee to the native country has much in common with Vike-Freiberga’s background (BNS, June 16-17).