Austerity-hit Latvia holds general election

The ballot is a crucial test for Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis.

Riga: Latvians began voting on Saturday in the first general election since the Baltic nation plunged into the world`s deepest recession two years ago.

The ballot is a crucial test for Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis -- at 39, Europe`s youngest head of government -- who is at the helm of an austerity drive which is part of an international bailout for the Baltic state.

"We took responsibility, we secured the nation`s solvency, gradually restored economic growth," Dombrovskis said in a pre-election debate.

As Latvia inches into recovery, polls show his coalition could retain power in this nation of 2.2 million, with a potential 60 seats in the 100-member Parliament.

"I voted for Unity," 65-year-old Daina said as she cast her ballot in a working-class district of the Latvian capital Riga shortly after polls opened at 7:00 am (0400 GMT). She did not give her last name.

"I voted for them because Dombrovskis works well," she added, noting that she was still holding down a job despite passing retirement age.

Inga, a 45-year-old grocery store assistant, said she also picked the premier`s party, albeit grudgingly.

"I voted for Unity because I didn`t know for whom else to vote. I`m not happy with them, but I don`t see an alternative," she said.

But major gains are expected by a Moscow-tied left-wing opposition movement rooted in Latvia`s Russian-speaking community -- 27 percent of the population, many of whose members came to Latvia in the five decades before independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The public is weary, in stark contrast with the upbeat mood in the 2006 election, two years after Latvia joined the EU and NATO. Then, Latvia still boasted double-digit growth.

At 15 percent, trust in lawmakers is now at a post-independence low, surveys show.

In a pre-election address, non-partisan President Valdis Zatlers urged the public to turn out however they feel.

"It is not an excuse not to take part in the elections... Be prepared to take responsibility for yourself and your country," he said.

Coalitions are the norm in Latvia and Dombrovskis` government is Latvia`s 15th since independence.

Dombrovskis, premier since March 2009 after a previous centre-right government fell, has slashed spending and hiked taxes in a drive to plug state coffers, under the terms of a EUR 7.5 billion (USD 10.1 billion) bailout agreed with the IMF and EU only four months earlier.

Harmony Centre has pitched beyond its Russian-speaker core amid a crisis in which the economy shrank by almost 25 percent over 2008-2009 -- the deepest recession in the world, according to IMF research -- and unemployment more than tripled to 20 percent.

It says it wants to redraw the bailout, arguing that double-digit pay cuts and other measures have been too harsh for ordinary people. Analysts dismiss that as electioneering, saying there is little alternative but to bite the bullet.

Harmony Centre mixes social democrats and ex-communists from the Soviet era. In 2009, it signed a cooperation deal with the United Russia party of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

University of Latvia analyst Nils Muiznieks said the "pro-Russia" label for Harmony Centre is fair but warned against overplaying it.

While other parties may not have such deals, several, even on the right, have pushed for better ties with Moscow, which remains Latvia`s main energy supplier.

If Harmony Centre enters government it would be a post-independence first for a party catering to Russian-speakers.

Tensions with the Latvian majority sometimes run high -- with Moscow a vocal watchdog -- but economic woes have pushed ethnic rivalries down the agenda.

Polling stations close at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) on Saturday and initial results are due several hours later, before the final count is released on Sunday.

Bureau Report

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