Mon, Oct 06, 2014 - Page 5 News List

Latvian coalition parties look to be headed for victory

AP, RIGA

Latvia’s center-right coalition government appeared headed for victory on Saturday in a parliamentary election overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis and worries over how to deal with its neighbor Russia.

The three-party coalition government, which has welcomed the buildup of NATO forces in the region as protection against Russia, was winning 62 percent of the vote, according to three exit polls released after voting closed.

The opposition Harmony party and For Latvia From The Heart, a left-leaning group supported mainly by the country’s Russian-speaking minority, had 27 percent combined, according to the exit polls. In the previous election in 2011, Harmony won the most votes but was kept out of government when center-right parties agreed to form a majority coalition.

The election campaign was dominated by security issues in the country, with a population of 2 million where a third of the population is Russian-speaking. The Russian-speaking minority favors balancing Latvia’s Western orientation with stronger links to Moscow.

“The war in the Ukraine has catapulted security to the top of the agenda,” University of Latvia political science professor Janis Ikstens said. “The war has exposed the Harmony party’s weaknesses.”

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said it was too early to claim victory but added that the new government faced many challenges.

“What happened in Ukraine has certainly played a role in the elections,” Rinkevics told reporters. “People didn’t really want to experiment with new parties. They want to see stability.”

After regaining independence in 1991 following five decades of Soviet occupation, Latvia and Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia turned West, joining NATO and the EU in 2004.

Alarmed by Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, the three small countries have welcomed NATO’s promise to increase its presence in the Baltics with thousands of NATO troops set to rotate around the region.

Like Ukraine, the three Baltic nations are former Soviet republics which fear that a more assertive Moscow might stir up their sizable Russian-speaking minorities.

A student in Riga, Matiss Uskans, 21, said he was voting for the governing coalition because he wants the Russian minority to have less say.

“They are looking after the interests of Russians, not Latvians and the EU,” he said.

About 1.5 million people were eligible to vote, but about 300,000 people classified as non-citizens were barred from voting.

They are Russian-speakers who are not Latvian citizens because they cannot meet citizenship requirements, including speaking Latvian.

Voter turnout — at some 57 percent — was the lowest since the country gained independence in 1991, Latvian news agency LETA reported.

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