Latvian vote could see ethnic Russian party at the front

Saturday's parliamentary election in Latvia — a Baltic member of the European Union and NATO — should see a political party catering to the country's ethnic Russian minority win most votes but it remains unclear if it can find coalition partners to put it into power.

Latvia, a nation of 2 million that borders Russia, has a sizable ethnic-Russian minority of around 25 percent, more if you count other Russian-speakers such as Belarussians and Ukrainians. That is a legacy of nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation that ended in 1991, when the nation once again became independent.

Nearly half of the residents of Riga, the capital, speak Russian even though Latvian is the country's only official language.

More than 1,400 candidates from 16 parties are vying for seats Saturday in the country's 100-seat Saeima assembly.

The left-leaning Harmony party is the country's largest with 24 seats but has been shunned by Latvian parties over suspicions of having a too-friendly approach to Moscow despite its pro-EU stance.

It is unlikely to team up with Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis' Union of Greens and Farmers, which polls suggest could come in second on Saturday, said Una Bergmane, a teaching fellow in international history at the London School of Economics.

To form a governing coalition, however, a three-party coalition is needed, as the two largest parties likely would fall short of a 51-seat majority, she said.

Since 2016, Kucinskis has led a three-party governing coalition with the national-conservative National Alliance and the liberal Unity parties. His party is particularly popular in rural areas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a taken strong interest in defending the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltics, and Latvia has felt Moscow's attempts to influence the country's affairs in media, business and politics. The capitals have tense relations after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 from Ukraine and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have also noted with alarm a substantial increase in Russian military maneuvers in the region.

Harmony's leader, Nils Usakovs who has been mayor of Riga since 2009, may have the best shot at grabbing power since earlier this year the party broke a cooperation deal with Putin's United Russia party that had upset other Latvian parties.

The populist KPV party of Artuss Kaimins, an actor-turned-lawmaker, recently polled as Latvia's third most-popular party but critics say its campaign promises are unrealistic. The New Conservative Party is running on a strong anti-corruption platform but has struggled to gain voter support.

Social issues such a national health reform and a debate over registering same-sex relationships have dominated the campaign along with economic issues and the fight against corruption.

Latvia' security police say they are probing a possible vote-buying case but claim they have found no direct or systematic attempts by foreign nations to influence Saturday's election.