Latvia coalition holds power in vote, pro-Putin force wanes

Mike Collier
Latvia coalition holds power in vote, pro-Putin force wanes

Riga (AFP) - Latvia's centre-right governing coalition scored a fresh victory in weekend elections amid alarm over neighbouring Russia's resurgent power, though a Kremlin-allied party backed by the ethnic Russian minority nabbed the most seats in parliament.

The leftist Harmony party, allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, actually lost ground in the vote, winning only 24 of 100 seats, down from 31 in the outgoing assembly, full official results showed Sunday.

But without obvious coalition partners, Harmony is set to stay in opposition, while ethnic Latvian parties that campaigned on concerns of Russia's expansionist actions will keep their spot at the helm of the Baltic state.

The three parties in Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma's centre-right governing coalition secured a sound 61-seat majority in the Saturday election, which could rise to 69 with a fourth party possibly joining in.

In the outgoing parliament formed after the last polls in 2011, a four-party coalition held 63 seats.

- Geopolitical jitters -

With Europe now in its worst standoff with Russia since the Cold War, Saturday's election was overshadowed by fears that Moscow could attempt to destabilise the Soviet-era satellite states of the Baltic.

Russia's annexation of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine spooked voters in this NATO and eurozone member of just two million people, where many retain vivid memories of the Soviet occupation that ended only a quarter-century ago.

Straujuma has been quick to call for more NATO troops and extra air patrols in the vulnerable region, and the alliance has responded with increased troop rotations and exercises.

"People wanted change but they started to be afraid in the context of Ukraine and Russia," Arnis Kaktins from the SKDS pollsters told AFP of Sunday's results which largely mirrored the outgoing parliament.

In it, predominantly ethnic Latvian parties joined forces to form a bulwark against the Putin-allied Harmony, favoured by Russians who account for a quarter of the population.

"It's a pattern we've had for the quarter century" since independence, University of Latvia Professor Daunis Auers told AFP.

"There is no surprise... the existing coalition has good support," President Andris Berzins said Sunday.

Under the constitution the new parliament will open on November 4.

It was not immediately clear whether Berzins would ask the 63-year-old Straujuma, a pragmatic technocrat, to form a new coalition government.

Analysts believe he could tap her Unity party colleague, outgoing EU development commissioner Andris Piebalgs, as Latvia is poised to take over the European Union's rotating six-month presidency in January.

"It's clear we don't have too much time," Berzins told LTV Sunday. "Soon it will be the first of January when we will be very active internationally."

Another possibility is Roberts Zile, leader of the National Alliance junior coalition partner, according to University of Latvia political scientist Ivars Ijabs.

But Harmony leader Janis Urbanovics insisted Sunday that having won the most seats, his party should be the president's natural first choice.

"We are the winners of the elections, in first place, and in a democratic country we expect the biggest party to be asked to form a government," he told LTV.

- Sanctions woes -

Concern is also running high over the impact that tit-for-tat sanctions between Moscow and Brussels over the Ukraine crisis could have on this tiny Baltic state, which is heavily reliant on trade with Russia.

Latvia made a spectacular recovery from the world's deepest recession in 2008-09, when output shrank by nearly a quarter during the global financial crisis.

A painful austerity drive by a centre-right government then paved the way for entry into the eurozone in January.

The sacrifices paid off, and growth in Latvia topped the 28-member EU for a third consecutive year in 2013, with a 4.0 percent expansion.

Forecasts had pointed to nearly five percent growth this year, but the escalating sanctions war could hit Baltic trade, transit and tourism.

"I voted for Unity on the basis that they are the best among the bad options," voter Maris Skrastins, 25, told AFP in Riga. "I trust them with the economy more than the others."

Turnout stood at a record low of 58.8 percent, according to the election commission.