RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Latvia's center-right coalition government appeared headed for victory Saturday in a parliamentary election overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis and worries over how to deal with resurgent neighbor Russia.
The three-party coalition government, which has welcomed the buildup of NATO forces in the region as protection against Russia, was winning 62 percent of the vote, according to three exit polls released after voting closed.
The opposition Harmony party and For Latvia From The Heart, a left-leaning group supported mainly by the country's Russian-speaking minority, had 27 percent combined, according to the exit polls. In the previous election in 2011, Harmony won the most votes but was kept out of government when center-right parties agreed to form a majority coalition.
The election campaign was dominated by security issues in the country of 2 million where a third of the population is Russian-speaking. The Russian-speaking minority favors balancing Latvia's Western orientation with stronger links to Moscow.
"The war in the Ukraine has catapulted security to the top of the agenda," said Janis Ikstens, professor of political science at the University of Latvia. "The war has exposed the Harmony party's weaknesses."
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said it was too early to claim victory but added that the new government faced many challenges.
"What happened in Ukraine has certainly played a role in the elections," Rinkevics told The Associated Press. "People didn't really want to experiment with new parties. They want to see stability."
After regaining independence in 1991 following five decades of Soviet occupation, Latvia and Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia turned West, joining NATO and the European Union in 2004.
Alarmed by Moscow's intervention in Ukraine, the three small countries have welcomed NATO's promise to increase its presence in the Baltics with thousands of NATO troops rotating round the region. Like Ukraine, the three Baltic nations are former Soviet republics which fear that a more assertive Moscow might stir up their sizable Russian-speaking minorities.
Matiss Uskans, a 21-year-old student in Riga, said he was voting for the governing coalition because he wants the Russian minority to have less say. "They are looking after the interests of Russians, not Latvians and the EU," he said.
About 1.5 million people were eligible to vote, but some 300,000 people classed as non-citizens were barred from voting. They are Russian-speakers who aren't Latvian citizens because they cannot — or won't — meet citizenship requirements, including speaking Latvian.
Voter turnout — at some 57 percent — was the lowest since the country gained independence in 1991, according to the Latvian news agency LETA.