An elderly Latvian woman casts her ballot papers at a polling station in Riga, Latvia, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. Latvians were casting their ballots on Saturday in a parliamentary election in which a party catering to the Baltic nation's large ethnic-Russian minority is expected to win the most votes, but is seen to be struggling to find coalition partners. (AP Photo/Roman Koksarov)

Ethnic Russians have big influence in Latvian election

October 06, 2018 - 12:11 pm

RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Latvians were casting their ballots Saturday in a parliamentary election in which a party catering to the Baltic nation's large ethnic Russian minority is expected to win the most support but have trouble forming a coalition government.

Voters in Latvia, which is a member of the European Union and NATO, are choosing from more than 1,400 candidates and 16 parties to fill the small Baltic country's 100-seat parliament, or Saeima.

The left-leaning Harmony party, which is favored by ethnic Russians, is expected to secure the most votes.

Members of the Russian minority account for about 25 percent of Latvia's nearly 2 million people, a legacy of nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation that ended in 1991.

The Harmony party is the country's largest with 24 seats but it has been shunned by Latvian parties over suspicions of being too cozy with Moscow, despite its pro-EU stance.

Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis' centrist Union of Greens and Farmers is expected to end up in second place. Since 2016, Kucinskis has led a three-party governing coalition with the conservative National Alliance and the liberal Unity parties.

Observers say it is unlikely that Harmony, led by Nils Usakovs, who has been mayor of Riga, the capital, since 2009, would team up with Kucinskis' party in a coalition because of substantial policy differences.

After casting his vote in Riga, Usakovs predicted the election would bring a political breakthrough for his party.

"After these elections, there will be changes, and people will be proud that there are no more nationalists in charge," Usakovs was quoted as saying by the Baltic News Service.

Other parties in the election include the populist KPV party led by Artuss Kaimins, an actor-turned-lawmaker, which some opinion polls suggest may come third. The New Conservative Party has a strong anti-corruption platform but has struggled to gain support.

Some Latvians were optimistic about the results of the vote. They included Evalds, 75-year-old voter in Riga who would not give his last name — not an unusual demand from someone who spent years under Soviet occupation.

"We're expecting changes. We need patience with the 16 (competing parties)," Evalds told The Associated Press. "The parliament of Latvia and our country will be a good example for Europe, a smart nation, and a civil society."

Others disagreed.

"There will be no changes in the parliament, because every year the main force is the coalition, and the parliament consists of the same people every single year," Igors, a 37-year-old railroad worker, told the AP. He also did not want to give his last name.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a strong interest in defending the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltics. Relations between Russia and Latvia have been frayed by Russia's annexation of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014 from Ukraine and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

According to the Baltic News Service, Latvian security police were investigating 20 suspected cases of voting fraud. But police said earlier they have found no direct or systematic attempts by foreign nations to influence Saturday's election.

For Alexandra, a 56-year-old retiree who also would not give her last name, picking a party was easy.

"I will vote for Harmony because I'm Russian. But I have lived in Riga my whole life and so have five generations of my ancestors," she told the AP.

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Tanner reported from Helsinki.

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