RIGA, Soviet Union — The nationalist Popular Front suffered a setback Sunday in key runoff elections, winning only four of the 17 remaining seats in the Latvian Parliament and falling short of the two-thirds majority needed for an aggressive secession campaign.
The election, four days before Parliament's expected vote on independence for the Baltic republic, could determine whether Latvia follows neighboring Lithuania in a bid to break free from half a century of Soviet rule.
Imants Ziedonis, a Latvian poet and head of the Latvian Cultural Foundation, said before the voting that the nationalists had to take control of Parliament to stop "the Russian elephant that is stomping on the Baltic anthill."
The Latvian Popular Front claims it won 124 places in the republic's 201-seat Supreme Soviet in the first round of voting March 18 and needed to add 10 of 17 remaining spots in the runoff to gain a clear two-thirds majority necessary to proclaim independence when the new Parliament opens Thursday.
But results announced on Latvian television late Sunday showed the Popular Front winning only four seats, with other candidates taking 11. One race was too close to call, and a second runoff was necessary in another district because neither candidate drew more than half the vote.
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has warned Latvia and Estonia that if they move rapidly to secede, they will face the same tough economic measures he has imposed in Lithuania, the third Baltic republic.
The Latvian Popular Front has vowed to defy Gorbachev and push through an independence proclamation soon after the new Parliament convenes May 3.