HELSINKI (AP) — Polling stations opened Saturday in Latvia for a general election influenced by neighboring Russia’s attack on Ukraine, divisions among the Baltic country’s sizable ethnic-Russian minority and the economy, particularly high energy prices.
Several polls showed the center-right New Unity party of Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins emerging as the top vote-getter, with up to 20% support.
Karins, who became head of Latvia’s government in January 2019, currently leads a four-party minority coalition that along with New Unity includes the center-right National Alliance, the centrist Development/For!, and the Conservatives.
A total of 19 parties have over 1,800 candidates running in the election, but only around eight parties are expected to break through the 5% threshold required to secure a place in the 100-seat Saeima legislature.
Karins, a 57-year-old dual Latvian-U.S. citizen born in Wilmington, Delaware, told Latvian media outlets that it would be easiest to continue with the same coalition government if New Unity wins. He has excluded any cooperation with pro-Kremlin parties.
Support for parties catering to the ethnic-Russian minority that makes up over 25% of Latvia’s 1.9 million population is expected to be mixed; a share of loyal voters have abandoned them – for various reasons – since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
The election is likely to be the death knell for the opposition Harmony party, the popularity of which has steadily declined.
The Moscow-friendly party traditionally served as an umbrella for most of Latvia’s Russian-speaking voters, including Belarusians and Ukrainians. In the 2018 election, Harmony received almost 20% of the vote, the most of any single party, but was excluded by other parties from entering the government.
However, Harmony’s immediate and staunch opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused many voters who still back Russian President Vladimir Putin to desert it. Those opposed to the war, meanwhile, have tended to move toward Latvia’s mainstream parties, all of which also took positions against the invasion.
Harmony is now trailing in fifth place with 5.1% support, according to a recent poll by Latvian public broadcaster LSM.
“I think the Russophonic part of the population is very fragmented,” Pauls Raudseps, a columnist at Latvian news magazine IR, told The Associated Press. “You can’t say it’s unified on anything. Some part is pro-Putin. But what we’ve seen is that the war in general has changed attitudes. And it has happened fairly rapidly.”
Latvia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine