TALLINN: Estonia’s opposition liberal Reform party won Sunday’s general election, outpacing center-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 29 percent of the vote, well ahead of Ratas’s Center 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 Center 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 Center in three areas: taxation, citizenship, and education.”
As for Ratas, when asked if Center 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.
Traditional rivals, Center 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 favored austerity to keep spending in check, giving the country the eurozone’s lowest debt-to-GDP ratio.
Center 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.
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.
While it won just seven seats in the 2015 election, the EKRE is now a close third behind the mainstream parties.
Staunchly euroskeptic, 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 Center and Reform.
“These people see few economic prospects and feel the mainstream parties don’t care much about their problems,” Saarts told AFP.
The Center party has long been favored by the Russian minority, comprising around a quarter of the Baltic state’s population of 1.3 million.
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 counts on Center 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.