Latvians voted Saturday in a general election, as the Baltic nation emerges from the world's deepest recession but remains locked in a biting austerity drive.
Opinion polls showed centre-right Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis's coalition could retain power, but that the left-wing opposition, rooted in the Russian-speaking minority, could see big gains.
The ballot is a crucial test for Dombrovskis -- at 39, Europe's youngest government head -- who has overseen deep spending cuts and tax hikes tied to an international bailout.
"We took responsibility, we secured the nation's solvency, gradually restored economic growth," Dombrovskis said ahead of the race for the 100-seat parliament.
The European Union nation of 2.2 million, whose double-digit growth of the past decade now seems a lifetime ago, has inched into recovery this year.
"I voted for Unity," a woman named Daina, 65, told AFP as she cast her ballot in a working-class district of the capital Riga. She declined to give her last name.
"I voted for them because Dombrovskis works well," she added, noting she was still holding down a job despite passing retirement age.
Grocery store assistant Inga, 45, said she also picked the premier's party, albeit grudgingly.
"I'm not happy with them, but I don't see an alternative," she said.
But major gains were expected by the Moscow-tied left-wing opposition Harmony Centre, whose core is the Russian-speaking minority -- 27 percent of the population, many of whom came to Latvia in the five decades before independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Harmony Centre won Riga city hall last year and mayor Nils Usakovs, 34, is the darling of his electorate.
"I voted for Harmony Centre. Because Usakovs has helped my mother at the school where she works," said Anna Truhanova, 28 and pregnant with her second child.
She said she lived with her mother and brother in a three-room Riga apartment. Her husband, failing to find a construction job, left to work in neighbouring Belarus and comes home every two weeks.
The Latvian public is weary, in stark contrast with the upbeat mood in the 2006 election, two years after EU and NATO entry.
The buoyant economy, fed by easy credit, went off the rails in 2008, before the global crisis added a further blow.
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.
Dombrovskis's government is Latvia's 15th since independence.
Premier since March 2009 after a previous centre-right coalition fell, he is trying to plug a gaping hole in state coffers, under a 7.5-billion-euro (10.1-billion-dollar) rescue package agreed with the IMF and EU only four months earlier.
Harmony Centre 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.
Its message has hit home 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.
While Latvia's other parties may not have such deals, some, even on the right, have pushed for better ties with Moscow, the country's main energy supplier.
Russian-speakers' tensions with the Latvian majority sometimes run high -- with Moscow a vocal watchdog -- but the crisis has pushed ethnic rivalries down the agenda.
Source: AFP Global Edition