Oct 4, 2014 8:24 AM

Latvians hold election in shadow of Ukraine crisis

The Associated Press

RIGA, Latvia (AP) Latvian voters on Saturday cast ballots for a new Parliament in an election overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis and worries over how to deal with resurgent neighbor Russia.

The center-right coalition government, which welcomed the buildup of NATO forces in the region as protection against Russia, is pitted against the opposition Harmony party and From Latvia To The Heart, a left-leaning group supported mainly by the country's Russian-speaking minority, which favors balancing Latvia's Western orientation with stronger links to Moscow.

Recent surveys have indicated it will be a tight race with slight gains for Harmony which won the most votes in 2011 but were kept out of government when four center-right parties agreed to form a majority coalition.

A poll published Thursday by market research organization SKDS showed support for the center-right coalition at 46 percent against 39 percent for Harmony and From Latvia to the Heart.

SKDS surveyed 800 people across Latvia in mid-September. It gave no margin of error.

Early results were expected after polls close at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT).

The election campaign in the nation of 2 million people bordering Russia has been dominated by security issues.

"The war in the Ukraine has catapulted security to the top of the agenda," said Janis Ikstens, professor of political sciences at the University of Latvia. "The war has exposed Harmony party's weaknesses."

After regaining independence in 1991 following five decades of Soviet occupation, Latvia and Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia turned West, joining NATO and the European Union 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 rotating round the region.

Matiss Uskans, a 21-year-old student in Riga, said he would vote because he wants the pro-Russians to have less say. "They are looking after the interests of Russians, not Latvians and the EU," he said.

Around 1.5 million people were eligible to vote, but some 300,000 people classed as non-citizens are barred from voting. They are Russian-speakers who aren't Latvian citizens because they cannot or won't meet citizenship requirements, including speaking Latvian.


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