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article imagePro-Russian party, populists top Latvia vote

By Imants Liepinsh (AFP)     Oct 5, 2018 in World

The pro-Kremlin Harmony party won Latvia's general election ahead of populists who may help it form a coalition, final results showed Sunday, after a vote tarnished by a hackers' attack on the country's top social network.

Harmony topped Saturday's vote with 19.91 percent of the vote ahead of two populist parties, KPV LV with 14.06 percent and the New Conservative Party with 13.6 percent.

"No coalition combination is possible without Harmony that would appear able and stable," Harmony chairman and Riga mayor Nils Ushakovs told the LETA agency.

"Otherwise, you could have a coalition of xenophobes and gay rights supporters, and such a government would stick together for two or three weeks," he added.

Harmony, popular with Latvia's ethnic Russian minority which makes up about a quarter of the country's 1.9 million population, was formerly allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party and has won the largest number of votes in the last three elections.

It never entered government as it failed to attract coalition partners, but the populists suggested before the vote that they may help propel it to power this time.

"KPV LV can work with anybody, we don't have any red lines regarding any other political force," lawyer Aldis Gobzems, KPV LV's candidate for prime minister, said in a recent TV debate.

KPV LV's leader, former stage actor Artuss Kaimins, was briefly detained over alleged corruption in June, but that did not appear to have bothered voters.

Harmony and the two populist parties can now put together a coalition mustering 55 seats in the 100-member parliament.

The pro-EU, pro-NATO liberal For Development/For! party came fourth with 12.04 percent, beating parties from the current centre-right governing coalition including the rightwing National Alliance, which earned 11.03 percent.

The centre-right Greens and Farmers Union of Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis won 9.96 percent and the New Unity took 6.67 percent as the last party crossing the five-percent threshold to have seats in parliament.

The current parliament will keep working until November while the parties lead talks on the new coalition.

- 'Comrades Latvians' -

The turnout for Saturday's vote was 54.59 percent  according to the election website
The turnout for Saturday's vote was 54.59 percent, according to the election website
Ilmars ZNOTINS, afp/AFP

The three-party government coalition has righted the country's economy hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, but it failed to impress voters looking for a change.

"Voters want new faces: the current ministers cannot offer anything entertaining," political scientist Filips Rajevskis told AFP.

The vote was tarnished by a hacker attack on the social network, second in popularity only to Facebook in the Baltic state, which displayed a pro-Russian message.

"Comrades Latvians, this concerns you. The borders of Russia have no end," it said in Russian, followed by images of unmarked Russian soldiers in green uniforms annexing Crimea, Russian tanks parading in Moscow and a smirking Vladimir Putin.

Turnout for Saturday's vote was 54.59 percent, according to the election website.

Latvia is a member of both the eurozone and NATO, having joined the military alliance in 2004.

Along with fellow Baltic states Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia declared independence in 1918 after the Tsarist Russian empire collapsed.

But it was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, and then by the Soviet Union for nearly half a century until 1991.

- 'Red October' -

Ahead of elections  a bus-stop poster in Riga urges "Support For Change" with the pro-Krem...
Ahead of elections, a bus-stop poster in Riga urges "Support For Change" with the pro-Kremlin Harmony party, which is popular with ethnic Russians who account for a quarter of Latvia's population
Ilmars ZNOTINS, afp/AFP

Analysts predicted Harmony, which has signed on some high-profile ethnic Latvians as their frontrunners, might join forces with populists to govern.

They also warned Harmony's victory would affect Latvia's foreign policy in favour of Russia.

"Pay attention to what Harmony is saying out loud in their ads: they're promising to lower defence spending to one percent of GDP," said political analyst Marcis Bendiks.

"That is a breach of NATO mutual understanding. This is their principal promise to voters," Bendiks added.

Latvia is one of NATO's top spenders on defence, meeting the two-percent-of-GDP goal wished by the Alliance.

Casting his ballot in the eastern town of Rezekne, voter Aigars Karklins said the prospect of Harmony teaming up with populists was realistic.

"I am going to make my choice for Latvia as part of the EU and NATO, and I hope most of us will do, otherwise this election will be remembered as the Red October," he told AFP.

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