Opposition party gains ahead of Latvian vote

The polls have just closed in Latvia's parliamentary elections, with preliminary results expected in the early hours of Sunday. Latvian TV exit polls show the center-right government taking the lead.

Thirteen parties are in the running, and opinion polls have suggested there could be a surprise breakthrough.

The exit poll by the BNS news service and LTV television shows the governing bloc getting 55 percent of the vote, while a pro-Russia opposition party won about 30 percent.

No party representing the Russian-speaking community has won seats in the country's parliament in its modern history. But now the Harmony Center party has been tipped to change that.

Economic recovery and a $10-billion bailout loan from the IMF were the issues dominating the campaign in one of the countries worst-hit by the financial crisis.

Politics is very popular in Latvia these days as everyone appears to be talking about it, including the Catholic Church, which is claiming that it would be a sin not to vote in the upcoming elections.

If we don't care about what is going on in our society, in our community, and we don't cast our votes – that means we are indifferent. And that is against the principles of the Bible,” said Priest Andris Kravalis.

Latvian politics has long been hung up on ethnic differences in the country. The largest minority – at around 30% – are ethnic Russians, many of whom moved here when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union.

After the break up, hundreds of thousands were denied citizenship – a policy the government is unconcerned by.

We counted them as non-citizens, as permanent residents, which means they are enjoying all the same social benefits as citizens for example,” explained Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis.

There is one exception, however. Permanent residents cannot vote.

Reports by the UN, Amnesty International and EU bodies say that non-citizens have effectively been denied a state to call home.

Victoria Tvoronovich has grown up in Latvia and says ethnic politics are ruining her country.

“The formation of political groups in Latvia has for a long time been determined by ethnicity,” Victoria says. “That's no secret; it's obvious there's no unity in the country. It's split into two major groups.”

And while nationalist politicians have been busy segregating their people, Latvia's economy has nosedived.

Dangerously leveraged by reckless speculation, it was hammered by the 2008 crisis.

The financial bungling caused riots in 2009, toppled a government, and led to the worst growth and unemployment rates in the EU.

The cause critics say? Ethnic fiddling while Rome burns.

At the end of the day we will have to start doing things in economic terms, in social policy, rather than playing again and again round a couple of topics connected with Latvian and Russian speakers,” Mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov said.

Mr. Ushakov is part of the Harmony Center – a new political force standing on a ticket of equality for Latvians and Russians alike.

It is already in power in the Riga municipal government and polls indicate it could become the biggest single party in Latvia’s national parliament too.

Although dubbed by some a pro-Russian party, a third of its support base comes from Latvians who have grown tired of economic mismanagement.