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Latvia: Exit polls put PM's New Unity party ahead in vote amid Ukraine war and soaring inflation

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By Linas Jegelevicius  with AP
A demonstration in support of Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in Riga in February.
A demonstration in support of Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in Riga in February.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Roman Koksarov   -  

Latvia has been voting on Saturday in a general election that has been overshadowed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and rising energy costs.

The centre-right New Unity party of Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš was set to win Saturday's national election, an exit poll showed.

He is given 22.5% of the vote, ahead of the United List (Greens and regional parties, 11.5%) and the Greens and Farmers (centre right, 10.9%). This should strengthen Kariņš' chances of being asked by President Egils Levits to form a new government when the new parliament starts functioning in early November.

If confirmed, the result should mean Latvia remains a leading voice alongside its Baltic neighbours Lithuania and Estonia in pushing the European Union for a decisive stance against Russia.

Ahead of the vote, opinion polls indicated that Kariņš’ New Unity party, which heads the current four-party centre-right minority coalition, was likely to emerge as the top vote-getter.

New Unity is projected to receive between 13% and 20% of the ballots cast by 1.5 million eligible voters.

The election will likely be followed by a lengthy period of negotiation, but analysts say there is a strong chance that Kariņš — who steered Latvia through the COVID-19 crisis among other things — will still be prime minister at the end of it.

Kariņš, a dual Latvian-US citizen, has told media outlets that it would be easiest to continue with the same coalition combination should New Unity win. 

Recent polls put the opposition Greens and Farmers Union in second place with 7.8% support and the centre-right National Alliance — a coalition member — just a fraction further back.

The other current coalition members are the centrist Development/For!, and the Conservatives.

There are a total of 19 parties with over 1,800 candidates running in the election, but only around eight parties are expected to secure a seat in the 100-seat Saeima parliament.

Neighbouring Russia's invasion of Ukraine looms large

Since the invasion began in February, Latvia, a former Soviet republic, has taken several notable measures.

The EU member state will introduce military conscription next year after a hiatus of over 15 years and has banned Russians from entering the country on tourist visas.

Latvia has also mirrored fellow NATO countries by dismantling a Soviet-era World War II monument in the capital, Riga.

This week the government announced a state of emergency at certain Latvian border areas as a precaution following Russia’s partial military mobilisation.

Like Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia is refusing to grant political asylum to Russian military reservists escaping conscription.

Kariņš has excluded any cooperation with pro-Kremlin parties if New Unity triumph in the election.

His current cabinet took office in January 2019 after lengthy formation talks and is the longest-serving government in Latvia’s history at three-and-a-half years.

But the turbulence of Latvian political history has not been reflected in the electoral campaign, even with a war 1,000 kilometres away and record-high inflation holding many Latvians in a chokehold.

“Despite the time we all are in, the electoral campaign is very calm," said Dr Maris Andzans, Director at the Centre for Geopolitical Studies in Riga

"No significant scandals, quite a few debates, really nothing extraordinary,” he told Euronews.

'Economic issues now are more important to most'

In August, the average level of consumer prices in Latvia soared by 21.5% on the year, according to the country’s Central Statistical Bureau (CSB).

Inflation is also expected to remain high until the end of the year, while the average prices of goods and services related to housing rose by 52.4%.

Latvian MP and former minister Ramona Petravica believes that economic issues are now the key factor for most voters.

"The public is notably worried about the soaring electricity and heating bills in autumn, as well as the general economic instability," she told Euronews.

"It especially concerns the elderly and people with disabilities, who are still unsure if they will be able to pay the bills and be able to purchase medicine and food due to government’s indecisiveness."

AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, file
The New Unity party of Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins is predicted to win the most votes.AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, file

Political disintegration in ethnic Russian minority

The vote on Saturday could be the death knell for the opposition Harmony party, which has been favoured by Latvia's ethnic-Russian minority that makes up over 25% of the population.

The Moscow-friendly party traditionally served as an umbrella party for most of Latvia’s Russian-speaking voters, including Belarusians and Ukrainians. In the last election in 2018, it was the largest single party, with almost 20% of the vote but was excluded by other parties from entering the government.

However, the party's immediate and staunch opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused many of its supporters to desert.

Harmony's decision has not resulted in new popularity either, as Latvian citizens who oppose the war in Ukraine have already tended to vote for mainstream parties.

The opposition party is now trailing in fifth place with just 5.1% support, according to a recent poll by the Latvian public broadcaster LSM.

Only parties that gain at least 5% of the vote will enter the national parliament.

Analysts predict diverse parliament

Iveta Reinholde, an associate professor at the Department of Political Sciences of the University of Latvia, told Euronews the upcoming election is “in a way very unique” for another reason.

“No other election ever has seen so many candidates with just primary education, representing low-paid low-skilled jobs," Reinholde said.

Karlis Bukovskis, the Deputy Director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs and Assistant Professor at Riga Stradins University, says that it is “obvious” that the new Saeima will consist of an array of political parties.

“I would say no party can expect more than 15 mandates in the parliament,” Bukovskis told Euronews.

But most agree that Kariņš and New Unity have seen a significant boost in popularity following the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

"Statistically, Latvian prime ministers tend to come and go far quicker than the term ends,” Reinholde said.

"Kariņš is all for Western politics and policies ... he has proven himself to be efficient in Brussels, he led the country through the Covid pandemic and now the war."

Additional sources • Reuters, AFP