The centre-right opposition Reform Party wins the parliamentary elections in the small Baltic country with almost 29 percent of the votes
Estonia’s opposition liberal Reform party won Sunday’s general election, outpacing centre-left Prime Minister Juri Ratas’s party and a surging far-right buoyed by a backlash from mostly rural voters in the Baltic eurozone state.
Led by former MEP Kaja Kallas, Reform garnered almost 29 percent of the vote, well ahead of Ratas’s Centre party on 22.8 percent, with the far-right EKRE more than doubling its previous election score at 17.8 percent, according to results from 98.5 percent of polling stations, Estonia’s official state elections website said.
Two other parties in the race which currently govern in coalition with Ratas, the Social Democrats and conservative Isamaa, respectively took 9.9 percent and 11.4 percent of the vote.
Both could team up with either Centre or Reform, or these two arch-rivals could govern together as they have done in the past.
Insisting that the “EKRE is not a choice for us,” Kallas told public broadcaster ETV that Reform would “keep all coalition options on the table” ,adding that her party has “strong differences with Centre in three areas: taxation, citizenship, and education.”
As for Ratas, when asked if Centre would consider becoming a junior coalition partner, he said “of course” but declined to elaborate.
Bread-and-butter issues like taxation and public spending had dominated the lacklustre campaign, along with tensions over Russian-language education for Estonia’s sizeable Russian minority and the rural-urban divide.
The far-right EKRE captured support promising to slash income and excise taxes and pushing anti-immigration rhetoric.
Turnout clocked in at 63.1 percent of eligible voters, the state election commission said.
Tax breaks, wage hikes
Traditional rivals, Centre and Reform have alternated in government and even governed together over the nearly three decades since Estonia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union.
Both strongly support Estonia’s EU and NATO membership and have favoured austerity to keep spending in check, giving the country the eurozone’s lowest debt-to-GDP ratio.
Centre has vowed to hike pensions by 8.4 percent and to replace Estonia’s 20 percent flat income tax and 21 percent corporate tax with a progressive system to boost state revenue.
Nixing a progressive tax, business-friendly Reform instead wants to raise the tax-free monthly minimum and lower unemployment insurance premiums to aid job creation.
Joblessness hovers at just under five percent while economic growth is expected to slow to 2.7 percent this year, from the 3.9 percent in 2018.
Calling existing taxes “difficult to cope with”, Marilyn, a small business owner from Tallinn who declined to give her surname, told AFP that Reform’s proposed tax breaks get her vote.
Alexander, a Russian-speaking factory worker who also did not give his full name, wants pension and salary hikes.
“It’s impossible to survive with the minimum wage,” he told AFP in Tallinn, referring to $615 (Estonia’s 540 euro) monthly minimum.
While it won just seven seats in the 2015 election, the EKRE is set to capture a close third spot behind established parties.
Staunchly eurosceptic, it called for an “Estxit” referendum on Estonia’s EU membership, although the move would fail in the overwhelmingly pro-EU country.
The party’s deep suspicion towards Moscow means it strongly supports NATO membership and the multinational battalion the alliance installed in Estonia in 2017 as a tripwire against possible Russian adventurism.
Tonis Saarts, a Tallinn University political scientist, draws comparisons to the rise of far-right parties across Europe that oppose immigration and multiculturalism while offering generous social spending.
He describes the EKRE’s position on liberal democracy, including civic and human rights, rule of law and the separation of powers as “very ambiguous”.
The party’s surging popularity is largely rooted in the misgivings of rural Estonians who feel left behind after years of austerity under Centre and Reform.
“These people see few economic prospects and feel the mainstream parties don’t care much about their problems,” Saarts told AFP.
The Centre party has long been favoured by the Russian minority, comprising around a quarter of the Baltic state’s population of 1.3 million.
The party signed a memorandum of understanding with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in 2004.
To avoid losing voters suspicious of Soviet-era master Russia, Ratas insists the deal is “frozen”, but also wary of losing the Russian vote, he has refused to rip it up.
The minority is counting on Centre to save the existing education system comprising Estonian and Russian-language schools set up in Soviet times, while Reform and EKRE want to scrap Russian-language teaching.
Polling stations close at 1800 GMT on Sunday. No exit polls will be issued, with initial official results due by midnight.