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Latvians vote for major shake-up

Repse seems to have been the main winner in Latvian elections
Repse seems to have been the main winner in Latvian elections

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RIGA, Latvia -- Latvians have voted for a major change in their leaders, ushering in newcomers to take the country into NATO and the EU.

The electorate in the small Baltic state have voted for former central banker and liberal Einars Repse's New Era party.

An often fickle electorate, that has voted for nine governments in three elections since the former Soviet Republic gained independence in 1991, swept away existing leaders amid a wave of anti-corruption sentiment.

Others to have benefited are the leftists, greens and Christian parties with the biggest loser being Prime Minister Andris Berzin's Latvia's Way which was dumped out of parliament.

The 41-year-old bachelor's New Era party appears to have secured the biggest majority, with 23.50 percent of the vote after 96 percent was counted, preliminary results from Latvia's Central Election Commission showed on Sunday.

The left-wing party, For Human Rights in a United Latvia, picked up 18.81 percent in Saturday's election, after a late surge and looks set to be the only left-wing party to make it into parliament.

Despite the left-wing party's strong showing, thanks mainly to the vote of the Russian-speaking minority population, New Era is expected to opt for a centre-right coalition.

In third place was the centre-right People's Party, part of the outgoing government coalition, with 16.6 percent of the vote.

Latvia's Way, headed by the current prime minister, picked up just 4.83 percent -- less than the five percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

Election officials said 73 percent of the 1.4 million eligible electorate had cast their ballots.

Another successful newcomer was the Christian Latvia's First Party, which got 9.6 percent support. The centrist alliance of Farmers and Greens won 9.5 percent of the vote while the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom, part of the current coalition attracted 5.3 percent.

Repse, who is expected to become prime minister, told Reuters: "We can now almost certainly say that we are the winners. We will cooperate with other right-wing parties, but it is yet to be decided which ones."

The Associated Press quoted him as saying: "I am pleased that so many voters saw what I saw in the current government and decided it was time for a change."

Opinion polls had only given New Era an expected 13.8 percent haul in the run-up to the ballot with the conservative People's Party predicted to win.

Pro-Western stance remains

Twenty parties fought for election to the 100-seat Saeima.

The result is not expected to affect the country's pro-Western stance and its preparations to enter NATO and the European Union.

The country of 2.5 million is also expected to keep with its pro-market reforms.

Despite the electoral volatility centre-right coalitions have dominated Latvian politics.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga used the election day to urge voters not to lose sight of the twin goals of NATO and EU membership although reforms had been painful.

"As president, I would very much like to see the outcome of this election continue that course," she told reporters after voting in the resort town of Jurmala, just outside Riga.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel," she added.

An EU source told Reuters in Brussels on Friday the European Commission would recommend next week that 10 candidates, including all three Baltic states, should join the EU in 2004.

Latvia is largely a success story on the foreign policy front and its economy is expected to defy a global downturn with GDP growth of five percent this year.

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