October 4, 2014 / 12:17 PM / 3 years ago

Latvians seen re-electing center right, Russia overshadows poll

Latvia's Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma casts her ballot during parliamentary elections in Jaunmarupe, October 4, 2014.Ints Kalnins

RIGA (Reuters) - Latvia's center-right government held a clear lead in a general election on Saturday after taking a hard line over the actions of neighbor and former ruler Russia in Ukraine.

Years of austerity after the global financial crisis have dented the coalition government's popularity.

But the conflict in Ukraine has shifted focus from the economy to security in a country where ethnic Russians make up almost 21 percent of voters and have heavily backed the pro-Russian opposition Concord party.

Fears over Russia's intentions in the Baltic region are often voiced by citizens, some of whom have painful memories of Russian rule, and early results showed the three-party coalition government with around 57 percent of the vote.

After voting booths had closed, the leader of Union of Greens and Farmers, part of the coalition, said the government would continue in power if current indications proved accurate.

"That is what the voter expects from us: stability for the country, a steady political course and Western values, and we will guarantee that," Augusts Brigmanis told Latvian TV.

Latvia's election commission said that with around 40 percent of the votes counted, the Unity party, the Nationalist Alliance and the Union of Greens and Farmers had 56.7 percent of the vote.

Concord had around 24 percent and was the biggest party.

An earlier exit poll, conducted by the news agency LETA together with the broadcaster LNT and Riga Stradins University, gave the coalition 61.7 percent of the vote.

Concord had 21.6 percent, while two new parties looked set to cross the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament.

Two other exit polls showed similar results.

"This election is different because of what is going on in Ukraine," Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma said as she cast her vote in a school in Jaunmarupe, a residential suburb of Latvia's capital Riga.

"The situation is escalating there again and people are worried what will happen because we have a border with Russia."

Straujuma has boosted defence spending and joined Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania in pressing for a bigger NATO presence in the region.

Furthermore, while spending and wage cuts under Straujuma's predecessor Valdis Dombrovskis hurt the pockets of many Latvians, the policies helped the country into the euro zone this year and the economy is among Europe's fastest-growing.

"I don't want Russian elements to be a majority," said 31-year-old Linda Zetmane, who works in human resources and who cast her vote for Straujuma's Unity party.

"Latvia is Latvia and it should be governed by Latvians."

Concord voters come mainly from the ethnic Russians who make up about a quarter of Latvia's two million-strong population.

The party has called for Russian to become Latvia's second official language and did not back a recent parliamentary resolution supporting Ukraine against "Russian aggression".

"The conflict with Russia is Ukraine's conflict with Russia, it is not ours," said pensioner Georgy Gurevich, 62, who voted for the Concord party. 

He said Concord’s candidate for prime minister, Nils Ushakovs, had improved life in Riga since he became mayor in 2009.

The former Soviet republic is a member of both NATO and the European Union and has backed EU economic sanctions imposed against Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Reporting by Aija Krutaine; Writing by Simon Johnson; Editing by Catherine Evans and James Dalgleish

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