Latvians Head to Polls With Coalition Set to Extend Rule

Latvians vote today in an election that’s set to keep the ruling coalition at the helm of the Baltic nation as the conflict in Ukraine polarizes opinion and erodes support for the Russian-leaning opposition.

Voting stations open at 7 a.m. in the capital, Riga, and close at 8 p.m., when exit polls are due to be released. The governing alliance, led by Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma’s Unity party, is backed by about a third of the electorate, a 16-point lead over main rival Harmony, which caters to the Baltic nation’s Russian-speaking minority, the latest poll shows.

Harmony, which has ties to the Russian ruling party that was once led by President Vladimir Putin, is losing ground in its bid to govern, with Latvia one of the most vocal backers of European Union sanctions against its former Soviet master over the war in Ukraine’s east. Straujuma told Latvijas Radio Oct. 2 that she’d like the coalition to remain intact.

“The ethnic vote has tightened after the events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine,” said Daunis Auers, a political scientist at the University of Latvia. “Latvians are more likely to vote for Latvian parties, and Russophones for Russophone parties.”

Latvia, together with fellow Baltic nations Estonia and Lithuania, has been rattled by Putin’s pledge to protect Russians abroad and his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. About a quarter of Latvia’s population considers themselves Russian and more than 180,000 ethnic Russians haven’t been granted Latvian citizenship.

Security Worries

Seeking to reassure the Baltic region, the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed to boost their military presence there through drills and air patrols. Even so, security remains a concern.

Estonia said last month that Russia abducted an agent from its security service and whisked him over the border to Moscow, while Lithuania complained that Russia swiped a fishing vessel in international waters. Russia said the Estonian had strayed onto its territory, while the Lithuanian boat was poaching crab.

Harmony won 29 percent in a snap election in 2011 and came close to joining the government before efforts to bring it into a coalition collapsed. This time round, its support has ebbed.

Harmony has 18.4 percent backing to Unity’s 11.9 percent, according to the Baltic News Service, which cited a poll by SKDS that didn’t give a margin of error. The two junior coalition partners, the Union of Greens and Farmers and the National Alliance, have support of 11.3 percent and 9.3 percent, it said.

Coalition Chances

The likelihood the current coalition will retain power is 52 percent, according to betting website Viensviens.lv. The chances an alliance will take power comprising Harmony, the Greens and Farmers and From the Heart for Latvia is 20 percent.

While Harmony’s leader, Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs, has said there are no “red lines” for working with other parties that reach the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament, he probably won’t succeed in finding coalition partners, according to Tsveta Petrova, an analyst at U.S. researcher Eurasia Group. The bid to bring it into government contributed to the demise of the Reform Party, 2011’s runner-up, which will deter others, she said.

“Unity will play the key role in putting together a new government,” Petrova said Sept. 24 in an e-mailed note. The current coalition will continue and support an “uncritically pro-Western foreign policy and neo-liberal, low-tax, business-friendly economic policies.”

Latvia’s economy is about 7 percent smaller than its peak in 2007, the year before it entered a record recession and sealed a 7.5 billion-euro ($9.5 billion) international bailout that ushered in some of the world’s harshest austerity measures.

Yields Plunge

Gross domestic product grew 2.3 percent from a year earlier in the second quarter, the slowest pace in almost four years. It may rise 2.9 percent in 2014, the central bank predicts.

Since the bailout, the budget deficit has narrowed to 1 percent of economic output and the nation has adopted the euro, helping the yield on the government’s 1 billion-euro 2024 bond tumble to 2.032 percent, less than similar-dated Spanish and Portuguese debt. Latvia has an investment grade at the three major ratings companies.

Almost 18 percent of voters in the nation of 2 million are undecided and 12 percent don’t plan to cast ballots to elect the 100-seat parliament, BNS said yesterday. From the Heart for Latvia, a new party run by the former head of the state auditor, has 9.1 percent support, it said.

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