HELSINKI — A political party catering to the ethnic Russian minority is expected to win the most votes in Saturday's parliamentary election in Latvia — a Baltic member of the European Union and NATO — but it remains unclear if it can forge a coalition to take power.
Latvia, a nation of 2 million that borders Russia, has a sizable ethnic-Russian minority of around 25 percent — more if you count other Russian-speakers such as Belarussians and Ukrainians. That is a legacy of nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation that ended in 1991, when the nation regained its independence. Nearly half the residents in Riga, the capital, speak Russian even though Latvian is the country's only official language.
More than 1,400 candidates from 16 parties are vying for seats in the country's 100-seat Saeima assembly. The election campaign has largely focused on social policies issues such as health and whether to register same-sex relationships as well as economic issues and the fight against corruption.
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.
Una Bergmane, a teaching fellow in international history at the London School of Economics, said it is unlikely the party will be able to team up with Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis' Union of Greens and Farmers, which polls suggest could come second.
To form a governing coalition, a three-party coalition is likely needed, as the two largest parties are expected to fall short of a 51-seat majority.
Since 2016, Kucinskis has led a three-party governing coalition with the national-conservative National Alliance and the liberal Unity parties. His party is particularly popular in rural areas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a strong interest in defending the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltics, and Latvia has felt Moscow's attempts to influence the country's affairs in media, business and politics. Relations have been frayed by Russia's annexation of the Crimea peninsula in 2014 from Ukraine and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have also noted with alarm a substantial increase in Russian military maneuvers in the region.
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.
Other parties fighting the election include the populist KPV party of Artuss Kaimins, an actor-turned-lawmaker, which opinion polls suggest may come third. And the New Conservative Party is running on a strong anti-corruption platform but has struggled to gain voter support.
Latvia's security police say they are probing a possible vote-buying case but claim they have found no direct or systematic attempts by foreign nations to influence Saturday's election.
The Riga-based Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism said it concurred with the assessment after having found "no persuasive evidence of foreign interference."
The London School of Economics' Bergmane said Russia may be a little bit distracted at the moment as it's dealing with several contentious international issues. That, she said, is "good news for Latvia."
"We're not the most important thing on Russia's agenda right now," said Bergmane, a Latvia native. "They have other problems like Ukraine, Syria and relations with the United States and Britain."