Russians, populists on top as Latvian voters seek 'fresh faces'

4 min

Riga (AFP)

Latvia's governing centre-right coalition faces a tough challenge from pro-Kremlin and populist parties when the Baltic state with a sizeable ethnic Russian minority heads to the polls Saturday.

"Nobody knows what Latvia will be like next month," political scientist Marcis Krastins said ahead of the election with a third of voters still undecided.

"But a cabinet of populists and pro-Kremlin politicians is a real possibility if they find some third party with which to form a coalition," he told AFP.

The prospect is frightening for many in a country that spent half a century under Soviet occupation before regaining independence in 1991.

"Pay attention to what (the Pro-Kremlin party) Harmony is saying out loud in their ads: they're promising to lower defence spending to one percent of GDP," political analyst Marcis Bendiks said.

"That is a breach of NATO mutual understanding. This is their principal promise to voters," he told the NRA daily.

Latvia joined NATO in 2004 and has been an enthusiastic partner in the western alliance facing Russia.

It is also rare among eastern NATO members in spending two percent of GDP on defence, as the pact wishes.

Formerly allied with Putin's United Russia party, Harmony is popular with Latvia's ethnic Russians who account for a quarter of the population.

It won the largest number of votes in the last three elections but was unable to attract any partners into a coalition to form a government.

Instead, the centre-right Greens and Farmers Union, the right-wing National Alliance and the centre-right Unity formed a three-party coalition government after the 2014 election.

- 'Nothing entertaining on offer' -

Under their watch, the economy, hit hard by the financial crisis 10 years ago, has resumed growth.

Wages, tax revenue and defence spending have gone up, unemployment has been falling steadily and the banking sector's money laundering problem is being addressed.

But polls show that the ruling coalition is losing ground despite their economic successes.

"Voters are tired of hard work, which was necessary to pull Latvia out of the economic crisis," said political scientist Filips Rajevskis.

"Now, when the economic turmoil is finally over and the country is back on track economically, voters want new faces: the current ministers cannot offer anything entertaining," he told AFP.

"That's where the populism kicks in.

"The old parties are trying to shuffle in some fresh faces as well, but not that successfully. Therefore there's the possibility of a Russia-oriented coalition after the election."

Polls predict the Greens and Farmers Union to win only 10 seats, the National Alliance even fewer, while Unity might not even meet the five-percent threshold to make it into the 100-seat parliament.

Meanwhile Harmony is on track to win again, securing around 30 seats. And after a decade of trying, the party may finally manage to form a government in league with newcomer populists.

- More than a third undecided -

KPV LV is a potential coalition partner. The populist party led by former stage actor Artuss Kaimins is polling in second place, with up to 15 seats.

"KPV LV is a 'shadow branch' of Harmony, which is not alone in its power quest any more," said political analyst Bendiks.

Kaimins was briefly detained over alleged corruption in June, but voters do not appear to mind.

"I'm voting for KPV LV, because I like them. I don't care if they're called populists," said construction worker Peteris Kalnins.

"And I'm not turned off by the fact that they've been investigated over corruption," the 29-year-old told AFP.

The party's candidate for prime minister, lawyer Aldis Gobzems, recently implied they are not against joining forces with Harmony.

"KPV LV can work with anybody, we don't have any red lines regarding any other political force," Gobzems said during a TV24 debate.

Polls put the populist New Conservative Party in third place on a ballot that includes 16 parties.

With only a few days left, a whopping 38 percent of voters remain undecided, according to independent polling firms SKDS and Kantar TNS.

Polling stations are open Saturday from 0500 GMT to 1700 GMT.