Far-right vote startles Latvia

A German-born right-wing extremist who cannot speak Latvian won the second highest number of votes in the Baltic state's general election, causing political turmoil yesterday.

The startling success of Joachim Siegerist's People's Movement for Latvia caught all the country's mainstream parties unawares and appeared to have scotched chances for the formation of a stable governing coalition. Although he is unlikely to join any future coalition, Mr Siegerist's staunchly pro-Latvian views are certain to fan tensions with the country's ethnic Russian community of nearly one million people. His strong showing could also lead to a renewed bid from the far right to secure a tightening of Latvia's citizenship laws.

With nearly all the votes counted, the People's Movement for Latvia looked set to capture 15.06 per cent of the vote, only fractionally behind the centre-left Saimnieks party on 15.33 per cent. Third and fourth places went to the centrist Latvia's Way, which headed the outgoing government, and the far-right Freedom and Fatherland party.

A delighted Mr Siegerist, who is known to be linked with extreme right- wing organisations in Germany where he has been charged with inciting racial hatred, declared that he had fully expected the result, despite pre-election opinion polls indicating that he would win around 5 per cent.

His many critics, however, were dismayed. "The general reaction is one of utter shock," said Ilza Arklina, editor of the Riga-based Baltic Observer newspaper. "But many people are also ashamed that so many of their countrymen voted for Siegerist."

Although he was born and raised in Germany, Mr Siegerist claims Latvian citizenship through his father, who, he says, was a Latvian national who fought in the German Wehrmacht in the Second World War. Despite his inability to speak the language, he became involved in Latvian politics shortly after the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the 1993 election he ran on a right-wing ticket and won a place in the country's parliament after busing thousands of people out to vote for him in a rural constituency and doling out lemonade and bananas. He was later suspended from the parliament for poor attendance.

Apart from a virulent anti-Communism and a staunch Latvian nationalism, Mr Siegerist's real political goals remain unclear. But he has a populist touch: during the campaign he promised to help the country's poor, without ever spelling out how he would do it. In true right-wing style he also promised tough new measures on law and order.

Until this weekend's election, Mr Siegerist has always been a pariah as far as Latvia's mainstream political parties are concerned. His success in the polls, however, now makes the chances of a majority left- or right- leaning coalition very unlikely.

"The picture is extremely confusing," said Ms Arklina. "Some people are even suggesting that the best thing would be to simply hold another election."