A banker-turned-politician won Latvia's presidential ballot Thursday, defeating the incumbent president who derailed his re-election bid at the last minute with a move to dissolve Parliament.
Challenger Andris Berzins, 66, triumphed with a simple majority of 53 votes in the second round of voting in the 100-seat assembly. The first round of voting earlier Thursday failed to produce a winner.
He will take over as head of head of state in a country whose economy was wrecked in the global downturn, with gross domestic product falling 18 percent in 2009 _ the steepest drop in the 27-nation European Union. The center-right government was forced to impose strict austerity measures to comply with the terms of a euro7.5 billion ($10.7 billion) bailout from the International Monetary Fund and European Union.
Berzins is currently a lawmaker for the Greens and Farmers Union, one of the parties in the coalition government. He is a multi-millionaire former bank president with numerous land holdings around the country and extensive political experience.
Zatlers, 56, had been widely expected to win the vote until he accused lawmakers on Saturday of being soft on corruption and called a referendum on whether to dissolve Parliament.
His decision came in response to lawmakers blocking the country's anti-corruption bureau from searching the home of powerful local politician Ainars Slesers, who is currently at the center of a major graft investigation.
Zatlers said he realized the move would damage his chances of re-election but it was popular with the public, long distrustful of a political system seen as controlled by wealthy oligarchs.
The referendum, set for July 23, will loom large over Latvian politics at a sensitive time for the former Soviet republic of 2.2 million people.
After the vote, pro-Zatlers protesters outside Parliament urged Berzins to "come out to the people, don't hide behind the oligarchs." At a news conference following his victory, Berzins said he felt he had the people's support.
"If anyone thinks that I will work on some oligarch's leash, don't expect it," he said.
Zatlers said the vote sent "a very negative signal" about which direction the country's politics were headed. He said it also showed that Parliament's vote last week barring the investigation against Slesers "was not a coincidence."
Neither candidate won a majority in the first round of voting. In the second round, 53 lawmakers voted for Berzins and 44 voted against him. Forty-one voted in favor of Zatlers and 56 against.
Two of the 99 lawmakers who took part in the second round cast invalid ballots.
Zatlers' term ends on July 7, after which Berzins will become the fourth president of Latvia since it regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.