Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš on January 5 asked for the resignation of Minister of Health Ilze Viņkele, claiming she has failed to timely produce a clear and viable plan for vaccinating the citizens of the Baltic country against the Covid-19 virus.
Viņkele told local media that she accepted the Prime Minister’s right to fire her, but called the move an attempt to shift responsibility for what she called “not especially coordinated and smooth crisis management, which in this complicated times should be done by the premier.”Her dismissal will be made official at a regular government meeting on January 7.
Dismissed Latvian Minister of Health Ilze Viņķele
Kariņš, on his part, told journalists that Viņķele had failed to deliver a detailed vaccination plan for the nation of just under 2 million at three different government meetings, and presented a document just after the start of the January 5 meeting of representatives of the ruling coalition parties. He also asserted that under Viņkele, the Ministry of Health had refused an offer from Pfizer of an additional 100 000 doses of vaccine, something which the Minister of Health denied. She also told local media that she had published a strategy for vaccinations in December and said her plan was more detailed than that of Germany and other European Union (EU) countries.
Hints of a political rift
In addition to signaling at least some disarray in Latvia’s attempts to distribute and vaccinate vulnerable groups with the first shipments of the Pfizer, the conflict between Kariņš of the centrist New Unity (JV) party and Viņķele of the liberal For Development/For (AP) party also seems to have opened a rift in the five-party coalition cobbled together in 2019 months after the 2018 elections to the Saeima or parliament.
American-born and educated Kariņš announced that Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks (AP) would temporarily take over as Minister of Health until AP nominates a new permanent candidate. However, Pabriks almost immediately refused the assignment and said Kariņš could fill in as Minister of Health himself.
There has been talk of a rift in the five-party coalition for some time, with speculation that AP was rocking the boat under Kariņš, whose JV, which with eight seats in the 100-member Saeima is the smallest in the coalition. Intrigues and reshuffles of Latvian governments, sometimes for apparently silly reasons, are nothing new in the politics of the Baltic nation since it regained its independence in 1991. However the latest possible precursor of a government crisis comes as the second wave of the pandemic is cresting with record numbers of infections and double-digit daily death counts as hospitals are pushed to the limit and beyond of their capacity to treat Covid-19 victims.
New Covid-19 infections peaked at over 1800 in late December, as the government imposed two periods of a 10PM to 5AM curfew over the New Year holiday December 30 — January 4 and again on January 8–10. Police and military (Latvian National Guard) warned or cited thousands of people for curfew violations, imposing fines of up to EUR 2000 on the most egregious cases or where police were violently resisted. The government also extended the state of emergency until February 7 from the earlier end-date of January 11.
“Irrational” restrictions criticized
Ahead of the curfew, the government had already come under criticism on social media for, just ahead of Christmas, imposing restrictions on a range of goods and services that could not be sold in shopping centers and supermarkets to avoid crowds. These included books but not newspaper, panty hose, candles and various tools — leading to an uproar and social media and modification of some restrictions. The services banned included haircuts and nail cares salons.
Politically, Latvia is no longer under a five party coalition, but actually consists of four parties and the remnants of the populist Who Owns The State (KPV) party, which saw its two founders expelled and in an angry conflict, followed by two rival party managing boards at each other’s throats late last year. The number of KPV members in the Saeima faction has fallen to 11 from 16 immediately after the fall 2018 election. Four deputies changed their status to independent and one announced she was resigning from the parliament.
One of the former founders of KPV, the lawyer Aldis Gobzems, has become a social media and public rabblerouser against mask-wearing and Covid-19 restrictions(at an illegal gathering of around 1000 persons in the Latvian capital Riga on December 12). While he denies being a Covid-19 denier, he feels comfortable in the company of the crackpot fringe in Latvia.