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Latvians go to the polls with a pro-Russian party vying for power

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By Daniel Bellamy  with AFP
Latvians go to the polls with a pro-Russian party vying for power

Polling stations in Latvia opened on Saturday for a general election that could propel a populist, pro-Kremlin coalition to power as the Baltic state celebrates the centenary of its birth as an independent state.

Though lauded for righting the economy, the governing centre-right coalition has lost ground, opinion polls suggest.

But with a quarter of voters still undecided according to pollsters, the election is still wide open.

Latvia is a member of both the eurozone and NATO, having joined the western military alliance in 2004.

Latvia's ethnic Russian minority makes up about a quarter of the country's 1.9 million population and Harmony, which was formerly allied with Putin's United Russia party, is popular with them.

The party has won the largest number of votes in the last three elections, and did not enter government only because it failed to attract coalition partners.

But this time could be different.

Along with fellow Baltic states Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia declared independence in 1918 after the Tsarist Russian empire collapsed.

It was then occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, and then by the Soviet Union for nearly half a century until 1991.

After the last election in 2014, the centre-right Greens and Farmers Union, the right-wing National Alliance and the centre-right Unity formed a three-party coalition to run the country.

On their watch the economy, hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, has resumed growth.

But polls suggest that voters are abandoning the ruling coalition.

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

"Now... voters want new faces: the current ministers cannot offer anything entertaining. That's where the populism kicks in," he added.

The established parties tried to bring in fresh blood, but that tactic hasn't appeared to have worked, said Rajevskis.

"Therefore there's the possibility of a Russia-oriented coalition after the election."