TALLINN — 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 28.8 per cent of the vote, well ahead of Ratas’s Centre party on 23 per cent, with the far-right EKRE more than doubling its previous election score at 17.8 per cent, according to full results on Estonia’s official state elections website.
Two other parties in the race which currently govern in coalition with Ratas, the Social Democrats and conservative Isamaa, respectively took 9.8 per cent and 11.4 per cent of the vote.
Both could team up with Reform for a 56-seat majority in the 101-member parliament, or holding a combined 60 seats, arch-rivals Reform and Centre could govern together as they have done in the past.
"Now the real work begins to put together the government and start running the country with common sense," Kallas told public broadcaster ETV/ERR.
Insisting that the "EKRE is not a choice for us," Kallas said 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.
EKRE leader Mart Helme raised the idea of a Centre-EKRE-Isamaa coalition commanding a 57-seat majority, according to ETV/ERR.
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 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 per cent flat income tax and 21 per cent 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 per cent this year, from 3.9 per cent in 2018.
For Lauri, an advertising specialist who declined to reveal his family name, the isolationist and conservative foreign and social 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 said.
While it won just seven seats in the 2015 election, the EKRE is now a close third behind the mainstream 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 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. — AFP