Governing coalition falling apart as Latvians celebrate vote to join Europe

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The Independent Online

Latvians celebrated the country's "yes" to European Union membership yesterday, comparing it to the elation they felt 12 years ago when they restored their independence from the Soviet Union.

But many also prepared to nurse headaches caused not only by drinking celebratory champagne but by a looming crisis in the country's fragmented four-party government.

"Latvia returns to Europe" read the banner headline splashed across a special Sunday edition of the nation's biggest daily paper, Diena.

Clearly elated, Einars Repse, the Prime Minister, congratulated some 2,000 cheering young people at an old town square in Riga early yesterday, donning a blue, EU T-shirt. "Latvians understand this is a decisive moment," he said. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvia's President, said in a televised address: "I congratulate everyone with making a successful and correct decision."

With all the ballots counted, 67 per cent voted in favour, while 32 per cent voted "no", the Central Election Commission reported.

About 72 per cent of the country's 1.4 million eligible voters cast ballots, one of the highest turnouts for a referendum or a national election held in Latvia.

The referendum was the last by the 10 candidate countries due to become EU members next May.

EU celebrations were marred after one party in the centre-right ruling coalition, Latvia's First, said it would quit the government unless Mr Repse resigned. It made its statement within minutes of exit-poll predictions on Saturday that the referendum would pass.

Coalition infighting had already been apparent for months, but the ruling parties agreed not to withdraw before the referendum, which they all supported, fearing that might hamper efforts to convince residents to vote in favour.

"Latvia's First pulled out because of the Prime Minister. It is opposed to his management style," said Guntars Krasts of Fatherland and Freedom, one of the other three ruling parties.

Mr Repse gained power in late 2002 when his New Era party, running on an anti-corruption platform, emerged as the top vote getter in the election. While he is widely seen as a financial success, critics say he can sometimes be heavy-handed with his fellow ministers.(AP)