Latvian election begins, pro-Russians are favourites

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Voting began in Latvia's snap general election Saturday with opinion polls suggesting a pro-Russian party could make history by gaining an unprecedented victory in the ex-Soviet Baltic EU state.

But rival parties mistrustful of the left-leaning Harmony Centre's pro-Russian stance will likely lock it out of any future coalition government, analysts say.

Pre-election polls showed it commanding around 21 percent support, mainly among Latvia's Russian-speaking minority accounting for over a quarter of the country's 2.2-million population.

Incumbent Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis' centrist Unity party was running second at 15 percent support neck-and-neck with ex-president Valdis Zatlers' new reform party, according to the pre-vote poll.

No party is expected to score an outright majority, making weeks of coalition talks a likely outcome.

In power since March 2009, when a previous government collapsed, the 40-year-old Dombrovskis has gained international plaudits for steering Latvia out of a deep recession and back into growth amid a draconian austerity drive under the terms of an international bailout.

Saturday's snap election was forced in May when then-president Valdis Zatlers called Latvia's first-ever referendum on the dissolution of parliament -- just nine months after the last elections -- over corruption concerns.

Zatlers claimed "radical action" was required to axe "oligarchs" -- a small cadre of influential businessmen-cum-politicians suspected of shady dealings.

In the July plebiscite, voters overwhelmingly backed Zatlers, but by then, parliament exacted revenge by electing wealthy ex-banker Andris Berzins to the presidency instead of giving Zatlers a second term.

Zatlers is now standing in Saturday's poll and has pledged to finish the job of cleaning up politics and to bring new faces into public life.

An EU member since 2004, Latvia is emerging from recession, with its economy expect to grow as much as 5.0 percent this year.

© 2011 AFP

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