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Ethnic Russians have big influence in Latvian election

FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 12, 2011 file photo, Nils Usakovs, Mayor of Riga, Latvia's capital, and a leader of the Harmony Center party, seen during an interview with the Associated Press in Riga, Latvia. A political party catering to the ethnic Russian minority is expected to win the most votes in parliamentary election on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 in Latvia, but it remains unclear if it can forge a coalition to take power. The left-leaning Harmony party is the country’s largest with 24 seats but it has been shunned by Latvian parties over suspicions of being too cozy with Moscow despite its pro-EU stance. Harmony’s leader, Nils Usakovs who has been mayor of Riga since 2009, may have the best shot at grabbing power following its decision earlier this year to end a cooperation deal with Putin’s United Russia party that had upset other Latvian parties. (AP Photo/Roman Koksarov, file)

RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Latvians voted in a parliamentary election Saturday in which a party catering to the Baltic nation’s large ethnic Russian minority is expected to win the most support but have trouble forming a coalition government.

Voters in Latvia, which is a member of the European Union and NATO, chose from more than 1,400 candidates and 16 parties to fill the country’s 100-seat parliament, or Saeima.

Polls closed at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT, 1 p.m. EDT) but voting was continuing at selected sites in North America for several more hours. Preliminary results will be announced Sunday.

The left-leaning Harmony party, which is favored by ethnic Russians, is expected to secure most votes. It’s the country’s largest party with 24 seats, but it has been shunned by other Latvian parties over suspicions of being too cozy with Moscow, despite its pro-EU stance.

The Russian minority accounts for about 25 percent of Latvia’s nearly 2 million people, a legacy of nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation that ended in 1991.

Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis, head of the centrist Union of Greens and Farmers party, has led a three-party governing coalition since 2016 with the conservative National Alliance and the liberal Unity parties.

Observers say it’s unlikely that Harmony, led by Nils Usakovs, who has been mayor of Riga, the capital, since 2009, would team up with Kucinskis’ party in a coalition because of substantial policy differences.

After casting his vote in Riga, Usakovs predicted the election would bring a political breakthrough for his party.

“After these elections, there will be changes, and people will be proud that there are no more nationalists in charge,” Usakovs was quoted as saying by the Baltic News Service.

Other parties contesting Saturday’s election included the liberal For Development/For! party; the populist KPV party led by Artuss Kaimins, an actor-turned-lawmaker; and the New Conservative Party, which has a strong anti-corruption platform.

Some Latvians were optimistic about the vote, including Evalds, 75. He would not give his last name — not an unusual demand from someone who spent years under Soviet occupation.

“We’re expecting changes. We need patience with the 16 (competing parties),” Evalds told The Associated Press in Riga. “The parliament of Latvia and our country will be a good example for Europe, a smart nation, and a civil society.”

Others disagreed.

“There will be no changes in the parliament, because every year the main force is the coalition, and the parliament consists of the same people every single year,” Igors, a 37-year-old railroad worker, told the AP. He also did not want to give his last name.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a strong interest in defending the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltics. Relations between Russia and Latvia have been frayed by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014 from Ukraine and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

According to the Baltic News Service, Latvian security police were investigating 70 suspected cases of voting fraud. But police said earlier they have found no systematic attempts by foreign nations to influence Saturday’s election.

For Alexandra, a 56-year-old retiree who also would not give her last name, picking a party was easy.

“I will vote for Harmony because I’m Russian. But I have lived in Riga my whole life and so have five generations of my ancestors,” she told the AP.

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Tanner reported from Helsinki.

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.



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