Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, a staunch critic of Vladimir Putin, won a decisive victory in general elections as voters punished a party backed by ethnic Russians, an exit poll showed.
Bolstered by its vocal opposition of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Karins’s New Unity won 16.8% of the vote, according partial results showing 540 of the total 1,055 voting stations counted. An exit poll released earlier showed New Unity winning 22.5%, almost twice as much as the next party.
Harmony, a group that won the last three elections with support of many Russians who make up about a quarter of Latvia’s 1.9 million population, had 4.1%. If that doesn’t change in the final tally, which is expected on Sunday at the earliest, it would not make it into parliament for the first time.
“Voters have shown they care about our country’s democracy, its existence,” Karins said on Latvian TV after the vote.
The election underscores a growing divide among European Union and NATO countries.
In Latvia and other nations that broke from Moscow’s totalitarian embrace when communism fell last century, anger over Russia’s attack on Ukraine is further bolstering support for Euro-Atlantic solidarity.
That contrasts with populists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — and his right-wing allies in Italy — who have leveraged frustration over inflation and immigration and fanned anti-EU sentiment to win votes this year.
“New Unity’s support is really connected with the war in Ukraine,” Juris Rozenvalds, a professor at the University of Latvia, said by phone. For Latvians, “NATO and the EU mean security.”
Karins, who is also a U.S. citizen, has led a dramatic turnaround for his party, which was the smallest to enter parliament in elections four years ago.
New Unity’s victory margin eclipsed forecasts from voter surveys late last month, while Harmony and the two other parties that took the top three spots in the 2018 ballot looked set to crash out of parliament.
Karins may be able to create a majority-backed ruling coalition with three other like-minded parties. The exit poll showed eight political groups winning seats in parliament.
Born in Delaware to parents who fled Latvia when the country was forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union following World War II, Karins moved to Riga in 1997 after getting a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania.
Since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February, Karins’s party has been one of the EU’s most vocal advocates of tightening sanctions. He has called on NATO to bolster its eastern flank, including Latvia’s 214-kilometer (132-mile) border with Russia.
Under his administration, Latvia also toppled the 80-meter (262 foot) Soviet monument in the capital, angering Moscow, and vowed to remove others.
By contrast, Harmony saw its support fracture after Russia invaded Ukraine, with other parties vying for the same electorate gaining votes.©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.