Latvians are voting in parliamentary elections for the first time since the global financial crisis plunged their country into the European Union's worst recession.
The vote is expected to reflect anger over the government's austerity measures, giving a pro-Russian party hope to win the most votes for the first time since the former Soviet republic achieved independence 20 years ago.
The polling could affect Latvia's commitment to its austerity program and with it the goal of adopting the euro currency in 2014.
A television advertisement for the Unity Party of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis.
Opinion polls give the Unity Party of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis a good chance of remaining in power together with its center-right coalition after Dombrovskis enacted the austerity measures that secured a $10 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
"If there's stability, there will also be growth," Unity member Dzintars Zakis said. "We must come up with ways to develop our export industries such as food production, pharmaceuticals, and the timber industry. That should be done both by the support of structural funds and intelligent tax reforms."
But the race was tight amid what was said to be a high voter turnout so far.
Popular anger over government belt-tightening has channeled support to a left-leaning opposition party traditionally backed by the country's large ethnic Russian minority. The pro-Moscow Harmony Center Party looked set to win the most number of votes, which would give it a seat in government for the first time since the Soviet collapse in 1991.
The party is advocating revisions to the IMF loan deal and promising to seek investment from Russia and China. Critics say its links to the Kremlin would increase Moscow's influence over its former subject state. But others say the blurring of ethnic divisions shows the country is more unified than ever since it joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.
Latvia was hit harder than any other EU country by the global financial crisis in 2008. Although the government has overseen a slow return of economic growth, unemployment remains at 20 percent and the government has slashed wages by up to 50 percent.
Riga resident Diana Jumburga, who receives food charity, said she saw "no point" in the elections.
"My only hope is that our children grow up and leave the country," she said. "We're not living here, we are just surviving. We're surviving for only a certain period of time."
Many analysts said foreign investors see Dombrovskis, who took office at the peak of the financial crisis last year, as the country's best chance for staying on track to economic recovery.
But critics said the country's leaders weren’t doing enough to ensure long-term stability.
Ruta Dimante, who heads the Ziedot Charity, said Latvia's leaders lacked the will to promote economic development.
"If you listen to the rhetoric of politicians, you see that everybody is promising only social benefits," Dimante said. "But we need to develop!"
But despite the opposition's rising support, Dombrovskis remains popular. Many Latvians realize the fact that the IMF deal saved their country from bankruptcy means the government has few options for maneuver.
based on Reuters and other agency reports