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Latvians go to polls amid divisions over Russia-Ukraine war

by JARI TANNER The Associated Press | October 2, 2022 at 4:38 a.m.

HELSINKI -- Latvia held a general election Saturday amid divisions over Russia's attack on Ukraine among the Baltic country's sizable ethnic-Russian minority. An exit poll predicted that the center-right will win the most votes but whoever forms the next government will face huge war-induced energy concerns.

A joint exit poll forecast that the center-right New Unity party of Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins would win the election, capturing 22.5% of the vote. The poll was done by Riga Stradins University, the SKDSA research center, the LETA newswire, Latvian Television and Latvian Radio.

The poll also predicted that a new centrist party that favors green development -- United List -- would be second with 11.5% of the vote and the opposition Greens and Farmers Union would come in third with 10.9% support. Only eight parties are predicted to pass the 5% barrier and secure representation at the 100-seat Saeima legislature.

A total of 19 parties had more than 1,800 candidates running in the election. Official results are expected this morning.

Initial voter turnout was 59%, the Central Election Committee said, an increase from 54.5% in the 2018 election.

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.

Support for parties catering to Latvia's ethnic-Russian minority, who make up more than 25% of Latvia's 1.9 million people, is expected to be mixed. Some loyal voters have abandoned them since Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

This election is likely to be the death knell for the opposition Harmony party, whose popularity 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, tended to move toward Latvia's mainstream parties, who condemned the invasion.

A recent poll by Latvian public broadcaster LSM showed Harmony trailing in fifth place with 5.1% support.

Long lines were reported outside polling stations in several places Saturday, including the capital, Riga. Many voters said Russia's invasion of Ukraine affected their attitudes.

Since Russia's war on Ukraine started in February, Latvian officials have banned Russians from entering the country with tourist visas and dismantled a prominent Soviet monument in Riga.

The Latvian government announced last week a state of emergency at certain border areas as a precaution after Russia's partial military mobilization. Like Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia is refusing to grant political asylum to Russian military reservists escaping conscription.

Latvia, which joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, also plans to reintroduce military conscription next year after a hiatus of more than 15 years.

Information for this article was contributed by Eduard Kolik of The Associated Press.

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