TV exit poll shows Latvia’s center-right government winning re-election

By Gary Peach, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

TV exit poll: Latvian government wins re-election

RIGA, Latvia — Voters in Latvia, one of the world’s most recession-scarred economies, have extended the mandate to the current center-right government to continue painful economic reforms, results of an exit poll and partial count of Saturday’s election show.

An exit poll by the BNS news service and LTV television showed the three parties comprising the current center-right government of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis winning 55 percent of the vote. The exit poll included 3,377 voters. The margin of error was not announced.

The Central Election Committee reported that, with 29 percent of the ballots counted, the government has 64 percent of the vote.

If the trend continues, it is all but certain that Dombrovskis, who took office in March 2009 after the previous government collapsed amid political and economic turmoil, would remain in power.

Both the exit poll and partial results show the centrist Unity bloc, which Dombrovskis leads, gaining the most votes among the five parties passing the 5 percent barrier — a surprise turnaround after nearly all pre-election polls had suggested a victory by the pro-Russia Harmony Center.

A victory by the center-left Harmony Center would throw into question a financial bailout program for Latvia, whose economic output has plunged 25 percent over the past two years.

President Valdis Zatlers, who has the right to nominate the next prime minister, has said that one of the criteria in his selection will be strict adherence to the €7.5 billion ($10.3 billion) emergency bailout package put together by the IMF and the EU in December 2008.

The bailout saved Latvia from bankruptcy after the economy had overinflated after four years of double-digit growth, but it also shackles any future government to harsh budget cuts and tax hikes — something that will not sit well with a population that saw unemployment reach nearly 25 percent last year.

Leaders of Harmony Center, which brands itself as the only social-democratic party in Latvia, have said in the past they would like to re-negotiate part of the IMF-led program.

Harmony Center officials, who control the city council in the capital, Riga, also say they would like to pull Latvia’s troops from the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, a drastic foreign policy shift that the president said could not be tolerated.

The fault lines between ethnic Latvians and the Russian minority run deep in this small Baltic nation, and the idea of Russian influence evokes painful memories of 50 years of Soviet occupation. Ever since Latvia’s independence in 1991, politics here have been dominated by center-right governments steering the country on a pro-Western course, culminating in NATO and European Union membership in 2004.

Russian-speakers, mostly ethnic Russians but also Ukrainians and Belorussians, represent one-third of Latvia’s 2.3 million population. But given that many traditional Latvian parties are blamed for the recession, some Latvians are willing to vote for the center-left Harmony Center. The party last year won a municipal election in Riga, the capital.

The Central Election Commission said preliminary results showed voter turnout was 62.6 percent, slightly more than the last election.

“I voted for Harmony Center,” said Sergei Nosov, a Russian who moved to Latvia 25 years ago and passed the citizenship exam. “I’ve seen that something’s being done in Riga. They’re doing exactly what they promised before municipal elections.”

Raivis Lazdins, a Latvian, said Harmony Center couldn’t be trusted. “They’re friends with the Kremlin party United Russia, which is led by (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin, so voting for them would be crazy,” said Lazdins, adding that he was going to cast his ballot for Unity.

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