(Bloomberg) -- Latvian voters are poised to knock a party appealing to the nation’s Russian population from the top political spot for the first time in more than a decade, weakening a former ally of Moscow in the NATO member state.
Polls suggest that Krisjanis Karins, Latvia’s US-born, center-right prime minister, will defeat Harmony, a Social Democratic party that represents much of the Baltic nation’s Russian-speaking minority, in Saturday’s elections.
The ballot underscores a growing divide in the EU. In Latvia and other countries that broke from Moscow’s totalitarian embrace when communism fell last century, anger over the invasion of Ukraine is further bolstering support for Euro-Atlantic solidarity.
They contrast with populists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban -- and his right-wing allies in Italy -- who have leveraged ire over inflation and immigration and fanned anti-EU sentiment to win votes this year.
“Certainly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is playing a bigger role than elsewhere” in Latvia, Maximilian Hess, a London-based fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said by telephone. “It’s far more on top of voters’ minds than, for example, in Italy.”
Voting closes at 8 p.m., followed by exit polls. About 24% of the electorate had cast votes by 12:50 p.m. in Riga, according to the Central Election Commission. Opinion surveys show that while Karins’s New Unity party is poised to win more than a quarter of parliament’s 100 seats, he’ll have to seek a coalition of as many as five parties to secure a ruling majority.
Karins, 57, was born in Delaware to parents who fled Latvia when the country was forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union following World War II. After getting a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to Riga in 1997.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, Karins’s party has been one of the EU’s most vocal advocates of tightening sanctions. He has called on NATO to bolster its eastern flank, including Latvia’s 214-kilometer (132-mile) border with Russia.
His cabinet pushed to reintroduce the draft, shut the border to Russian tourists, moved to cut off gas imports from its neighbor, and supplied Ukraine with weapons and political support.
Under his administration, Latvia also toppled the 80-meter (262 foot) Soviet monument in the capital, angering Moscow, and vowed to remove others.
“Russia’s attack on Ukraine has put the liberal values -- freedom, democracy and the rule of law -- under the biggest threat since WW II,” Karins said on Facebook in September.
By comparison, Harmony has won the last three elections but has been thwarted from taking power by coalitions of other political forces. The main party representing the ethnic Russians who make up about a quarter of Latvia’s 1.9 million people, Harmony cut ties with Russia’s Putin-allied United Russia party in 2017.
This year, Harmony condemned the invasion of Ukraine, and it has scrubbed its platform of any mention of either country, which it says has hurt its popularity among traditional supporters.
“This is the main reason why we are not in first place,” Ivars Zarins, Harmony’s candidate for prime minister, told Latvijas Radio on Sept. 19.
Still, Latvia is battling one of Europe’s highest inflation rates, at above 20%, and has been buffeted by a financial-sector cleanup and Covid lockdowns.
But, with the war driving up prices of food and fuel, many voters see that as Russia’s fault too.
“The parties in the current government are looking well placed,” said Ian Bond, a former UK ambassador to Riga and director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform. “They aren’t being punished for the economic problems because Russia has been blamed for it.”
(Updates with early turnout figures in sixth paragraph.)
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