Russian minority left-wing tops Latvia EU vote

RIGA, Aleks Tapinsh- Left-wing parties rooted in the ethnic Russian minority were among the top performers in European parliamentary elections in recession-hit Latvia, while a newborn government party also made major strides, exit polls indicated Sunday.
With trust in politicians at rock bottom, the centre-right coalition of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis had feared a backlash from voters over an austerity drive that includes paring public services to the bone and slashing state-sector pay to respect the terms of an IMF bailout.

With a general election not due until October next year, Saturday's double-headed European and municipal ballots were a first test strength for the four-month-old government.
A survey by public broadcaster LTV and the Baltic News Service found that the left-leaning opposition movement Harmony Centre -- whose core voters are Russian-speakers -- received 20 percent in the European parliamentary vote, doubling its opinion-poll rating. A survey by the daily Diena and the news agency Leta gave it 17 percent.
If confirmed by official results, due after the rest of the 27-member EU finishes voting Sunday, the score would ensure Harmony Centre's controversial kingpin Alfreds Rubiks becomes a member of the European Parliament.
Rubiks was Latvia's leader before it broke from the Soviet Union in 1991, and was jailed after independence for trying to overthrow the democratic government.
Another ethnic Russian movement, For Human Rights in United Latvia, scored 13 percent according to the LTV and BNS poll. Diena and Leta gave it eight percent.
Rubiks could find himself facing an old adversary.
Ivars Godmanis, Latvia's independence-era leader, looked set to become a member of the EU parliament because his centre-right opposition Latvia's First Party -- which was elbowed out of government in March -- won eight to 12 percent, the surveys found.
Exit polls also suggested that Rubiks' and Godmanis' parties had taken control of the prestigious Riga city council. Local election results were not due until Sunday.
Latvia, a country of 2.3 million people, joined the EU in 2004. It has eight seats in the EU parliament.
Latvian government statistics show that 630,380 ethnic Russians live in the Baltic state.
Not all of them are eligible to vote. Only around 368,000 hold Latvian passports in part due to strict citizenship laws put in place after independence to redress a Soviet-era "Russification" drive. The issue causes tension between Russia and Latvia.
Economic woes, however, unite people across the ethnic divide.
The economy is expected to shrink by 18 percent this year -- a far cry from the double-digit growth of recent years -- stoking anger among Latvia's 1.5 million voters.
The exit polls, however, indicated that the government was not punished en masse.
The Civic Union, a movement founded last year and led by ex-EU commissioner Sandra Kalneite, beat expectations with 19-24 percent of the vote.
It entered government when Dombrovskis created his five-party coalition in March after Godmanis' administration collapsed in the face of the economic crisis and street protests.
Dombrovskis' New Era party won between seven and 11 percent, better than forecast, the polls found.
Among the premier's other allies the nationalist Union for Fatherland and Freedom obtained six to eight percent.
Teetering on the threshold was the People's Party, a key coalition player which until December 2007 ran the government and was accused of ignoring warnings of overheating during the economic boom. It scored 4.6 to six percent, the polls indicated.
The fifth coalition member, the Union of Greens and Farmers, missed the boat with four percent.

Sunday, June 7th 2009
Aleks Tapinsh

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