Latvia’s General Election Tests Loyalties of Ethnic-Russian Voters
Neighboring Russia’s attack on Ukraine helped shape the general election held Saturday in Latvia, where divisions among the Baltic country’s sizable ethnic-Russian minority are likely to influence the makeup of parliament and war-induced energy concerns will preoccupy the next government.
Several polls showed the center-right New Unity party of Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins emerging as the top vote-getter, with up to 20% support.
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.
A total of 19 parties have over 1,800 candidates running in the election, but only around eight parties are expected to break through the 5% threshold required to secure a place in the 100-seat Saeima legislature.
Karins, a 57-year-old dual Latvian-U.S. citizen born in Wilmington, Delaware, told Latvian media outlets that it would be easiest to continue with the same coalition government if New Unity wins. He has excluded any cooperation with pro-Kremlin parties.
Support for parties catering to the ethnic-Russian minority that makes up over 25% of Latvia’s 1.9 million population is expected to be mixed; a share of loyal voters have abandoned them – for various reasons – since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
The election is likely to be the death knell for the opposition Harmony party, the popularity of which 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, have tended to move toward Latvia’s mainstream parties, all of which also took positions against the invasion.
A recent poll by Latvian public broadcaster LSM showed Harmony trailing in fifth place with 5.1% support.
“I think the Russophonic part of the population is very fragmented,” Pauls Raudseps, a columnist at Latvian news magazine IR, told The Associated Press. “You can’t say it’s unified on anything. Some part is pro-Putin. But what we’ve seen is that the war in general has changed attitudes. And it has happened fairly rapidly.”
Long lines were reported outside polling stations in several places in the country Saturday, including the capital, Riga. Many said Russia’s aggression in Ukraine affected voter attitudes.
“I think that people are getting more active, and as you see, there is a queue already. So, hopefully some of the pro-Russians have switched to the more European parties now … We can’t really say war is a positive thing,” IT engineer Ratios Shovels, 38, said at a Riga district polling place.
Elena Dadukina, a 43-year-old lawyer said, said she wasn’t sure if the healthy turnout was “due to the war or whether people want greater responsibility in choosing their candidates because of how they will influence our domestic politics.”
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.
This week, the government announced a state of emergency at certain Latvian border areas as a precaution following 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 over 15 years.