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article imageEurosceptic far right challenges mainstream in Estonia vote

By Polina KALANTAR with Mary SIBIERSKI in Warsaw (AFP)     Mar 3, 2019 in World

Estonians voted in a general election Sunday with the centre-left coalition fighting for survival in a duel with its traditional liberal rivals and a surging far-right party buoyed by a backlash from mostly rural voters in the Baltic eurozone state.

Bread-and-butter issues like taxation and public spending dominated the lacklustre campaign, along with tensions over Russian-language education for Estonia's sizeable Russian minority and the rural-urban divide.

Nearly 60 percent of the 880,690 eligible voters had cast their ballots by 4 pm (1400 GMT) on Sunday, including 40 percent who used e-voting in advance polling, with officials confident the online system can withstand any attempted meddling.

A poll collating e-voters and those intent on using paper ballots on Sunday suggests a tight race.

Prime Minister Juri Ratas's centrist Centre party scored 24.5 percent support, narrowly trailing the liberal Reform party led by former MEP Kaja Kallas with 26.6 percent, according to pollster Kantar Emor.

Promising to slash income and excise taxes and pushing anti-immigration rhetoric, the far-right EKRE stands to more than double its support to 17.3 percent, but could struggle to find coalition partners.

With five to six parties expected to enter the 101-seat parliament, the splintered outcome could make for tricky coalition building.

- 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.

Kaja Kallas's business-friendly Reform wants to raise the tax-free monthly minimum and lower un...
Kaja Kallas's business-friendly Reform wants to raise the tax-free monthly minimum and lower unemployment insurance premiums to aid job creation
Raigo PAJULA, AFP

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 exemption 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 3.9 percent in 2018.

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 Estonia's 540 euro ($615) monthly minimum.

For Lauri, an advertising specialist who also declined to reveal his family name and voter preference, the isolationist and conservative social and foreign policy proposed by parties like the EKRE is cause for concern.

"There's a trend in western Europe right now, if we look at the Netherlands, at England, maybe even France. I don't support such populism myself," he told AFP.

- Estxit -

Centre  the party of Prime Minister Juri Ratas shown here campaigning on Saturday  has vowed to hike...
Centre, the party of Prime Minister Juri Ratas shown here campaigning on Saturday, 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
Raigo Pajula, AFP

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 be doomed to fail in the overwhelmingly pro-EU country.

The party's deep suspicion of Moscow translates into strong support for 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, describes the EKRE's position on liberal democracy, including civic and human rights, rule of law and the separation of powers, as "very ambiguous" and draws comparisons to similar parties that have gained support across Europe in recent years.

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.

- Russian minority -

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.

A bridge across the Narova River separate's the east Estonian town of Narva from  Ivangorod in ...
A bridge across the Narova River separate's the east Estonian town of Narva from Ivangorod in Russia
ALEXANDER DROZDOV, INTERPRESS/AFP

To avoid losing voters suspicious of Russia, Ratas insists that a 2004 cooperation deal with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party is "frozen". But out of fear 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.

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