Estonia votes as far-right surge challenges mainstream
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Estonia votes as far-right surge challenges mainstream

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

A member of the Reform party (L) hands over leaflets on March 2, 2019 in Tallinn, on the eve of Estonia's general elections. (Raigo Pajula / AFP)
A member of the Reform party (L) hands over leaflets on March 2, 2019 in Tallinn, on the eve of Estonia's general elections. (Raigo Pajula / AFP)

TALLINN, Estonia (AFP) — Estonians vote Sunday in a general election with the center-left coalition dueling its traditional liberal rivals and a surging far-right party buoyed by a backlash from mostly rural voters in the Baltic eurozone state.

The lacklustre campaign has focused on bread and butter issues like taxation and public spending, as well as tensions over Russian language education for Estonia’s sizeable Russian minority and the rural-urban divide.

Nearly 40 percent of the 880,690 eligible voters have used e-voting in advanced 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.

Estonias’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas of the Centre party gives a press conference on February 28, 2019 in Tallinn (Raigo PAJULA / AFP)

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 5-6 parties expected to enter the 101-seat parliament, the splintered outcome will 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.

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.

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.

Thousands of supporters of Estonia’s far-right EKRE party held a torchlight march to mark independence day in Tallinn on Sunday February 24, 2019 (Screencapture/Youtube)

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, 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.

Estxit

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.

Tallinn's skyscrapers loom above a frozen expanse of white. The temperature in Tallinn plummeted to -28 Celsius (-18.4 Fahrenheit) (photo credit: AP/Timur Nisametdinov/NIPA)
Tallinn’s skyscrapers loom above a frozen expanse of white. The temperature in Tallinn plummeted to -28 Celsius (-18.4 Fahrenheit) (photo credit: AP/Timur Nisametdinov/NIPA)

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.

Russian minority

The Centre party has long been favored 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 open from 0700 to 1800 GMT on Sunday. No exit polls will be issued, with initial official results due by midnight.

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