Ethnic Russians seen as having weight in Latvian election

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.

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

Latvian public broadcaster LSM’s latest poll had the left-leaning Harmony party favored by ethnic Russians securing the greatest share of the vote, 17.2 percent. About a quarter of voters are still undecided.

Members of the minority account for about 25 percent of Latvia’s 2 million people, a legacy of nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation that ended in 1991. Nearly half the residents in Riga, the capital, speak Russian even though Latvian is the country’s only official language.

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.

The LSM poll had Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis’ centrist Union of Greens and Farmers in second place, with 9.4 percent.

Since 2016, Kucinskis has led a three-party governing coalition with the conservative National Alliance and the liberal Unity parties. His party is particularly popular in rural areas.

Observers say it is unlikely Harmony, led by Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs since 2009, would team up with Kucinskis’ party because of policy differences.

To form a governing coalition, a three-party coalition is likely needed, as the two largest parties are expected to fall short of a 51-seat majority.

Other parties fighting the election include the populist KPV party of Artuss Kaimins, an actor-turned-lawmaker, which some opinion polls suggest may come third.

The New Conservative Party is running on a strong anti-corruption platform but has struggled to gain voter support.

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