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May 29, 2017

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Latvia nominates first woman prime minister

RIGA, Latvia--Latvia is poised to get its first woman prime minister after the country's president on Monday tasked Laimdota Straujuma with forming a new government.

Straujuma, 62, is to replace Valdis Dombrovskis, who stepped down after a deadly supermarket roof collapse in a suburb of the capital Riga in November.

Latvia's agriculture minister since 2011, Straujuma impressed with her negotiating skills to press for a better EU deal for her country's farmers.

Dombrovskis remains as caretaker premier pending the formation of the new government, which is expected to take two to three weeks. The new administration will rule until scheduled elections in October.

"I am confident that this centre-right coalition can work effectively," Straujuma told reporters in Riga.

Dombrovskis, a 42-year-old trained physicist respected for his squeaky clean politics, resigned on Nov. 27 over the catastrophic collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga which killed 54 people.

He was the longest serving premier since Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Latvia, a largely rural Baltic state with a population of two million, became an EU member state in 2004. This year it became the 18th EU country to adopt the euro as its currency.

Straumjuma, who was previously an economist and civil servant, has up to now served as a non-partisan politician.

On Sunday, though, she was made a member of the liberal-conservative Unity party in order to become their official nominee. At her Riga news conference she was flanked by representatives of four political parties that supported her candidacy as prime minister in principle.

Straujuma said her priorities heading the new government would be using EU funds effectively and improving education.

"It is necessary to maintain stability for the next nine months," she said.

Local media have commented on her physical resemblance to Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. But Straujuma laughed that off Monday saying: "I'm deeply flattered to be compared to Mrs. Merkel."

Having received presidential backing, Straujuma will now hold talks with political parties represented in parliament. The coalition of four parties, plus independent lawmakers, which she outlined Monday would give her control of 66 out of the 100 seats in the Latvian parliament or Saeima.

Though no woman has ever headed a government in Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga held the presidency for two consecutive terms from 1999 to 2007 and is widely regarded as one of the country's best presidents.

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