Pro-Russia party tops Latvia vote but short of majority
A pro-Russian party headed for its first victory in Latvia Saturday after a snap general election in the ex-Soviet state but fell short of a clear majority it needs to govern alone.
The ballot in the EU member was triggered by a corruption crisis involving the so-called "oligarch parties" led by businessmen-cum-politicians, as the Baltic country struggles to emerge from Europe's deepest recession.
The Latvian-Russian ethnic divide emerged as a key issue at the polls. The Harmony Centre made its strongest showing ever, but was unlikely to find coalition partners among two mainstream parties wary of its formal ties with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
It garnered 28.71 percent of the vote, ahead of the new anti-corruption Zatlers Reform Party led by ex-president Valdis Zatlers, which mustered 20.31 percent, according to a Baltic News Service exit poll.
The centrist Unity bloc of incumbent centrist Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis ranked third with 19.16 percent, the BNS exit poll showed.
The pro-Latvian National Alliance took 16.13 percent while the Union of Greens and Farmers -- widely dubbed an "oligarch" party -- came fourth with 10.61 percent.
"We will talk first with Unity, then the National Alliance and after that Harmony Centre," Edmunds Sprudzs, the prime ministerial candidate with the Zatlers Reform Party told Latvia's LNT TV after polling closed.
"The three parties consisting of the Zatlers Reform Party, Unity and the National Alliance are the most likely combination. There is a long tradition of keeping the Russians out and this is the most probable coalition," Ivars Ijabs, a political scientist told AFP.
"We will have to wait for the outcome of talks, but our first conversation will be with the Zatlers Reform Party," Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis also told LNT TV.
"If together we would have around 40 seats or more it could form the basis of a strong government," he said.
"lt's a good result that should give stability," former president Zatlers said, echoing Dombrovskis.
Freshly elected President Andris Berzins, who was among early-bird voters Saturday, has said he will launch formal talks on the formation of a new government on September 28.
Full official election results are expected to be announced Sunday afternoon.
No other parties passed the five percent threshold needed to enter the 100-seat parliament, or Saeima.
As the second largest party in the outgoing parliament, the Harmony Centre draws most of its support from Latvia's sizable Russian minority, accounting for some 27 percent of the population of 2.2 million.
The election was forced by a July referendum in which more than 90 percent of voters backed a move by then president Zatlers to dissolve parliament because of graft fears in the oligarch parties.
After being ousted from the presidency in July, Zatlers formed his own party focused on rooting out corruption.
Speaking to LNT TV after the vote Dombrovskis proclaimed himself pleased with the poor showing of the "oligarch" parties.
"We wanted this parliament to have fewer representatives of oligarch parties than the previous one and that is what seems to have happened," he said.
Dombrovskis has won plaudits for steering Latvia out of the world's deepest recession and back into growth, by overseeing a draconian austerity drive under the terms of an international bailout.
The Harmony Centre however gained political ground as it raised the idea of revising the terms of the 7.5-billion-euro ($10.9-billion) rescue package agreed with the European Union and International Monetary Fund implemented under a biting austerity drive.
Boom turned to bust in Latvia in 2008 when it sank into a recession that saw the economy shrink by 25 percent over two years.
The international bailout paired with deep cuts in public spending brought the country out of the recession, with its economy expect to grow as much as 5.0 percent this year.
© 2011 AFP