TALLINN, Estonia (AFP) — 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 28.8 percent of the vote, well ahead of Ratas’s Center party on 23 percent, with the far-right EKRE more than doubling its previous election score at 17.8 percent, 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 percent and 11.4 percent 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 Center 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 Center in three areas: taxation, citizenship, and education.”
Mart Helme , the leader of the far-right EKRE, has publicly expressed xenophobic, sexist and homophobic views, and the members of his party have included people convicted of violent crimes and Nazi sympathizers.
Helme’s father was a veteran of the Estonian Legion, a military unit comprised of forcibly drafted and volunteer Estonian soldiers that served as part of Nazi German SS forces in World War II.
A historian, Helme became a diplomat in 1994 after Estonia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union, and served as Estonia’s ambassador to Russia for several years.
He entered politics in the early 2000s before eventually taking over the leadership of the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE).
His son Martin Helme is currently the party’s deputy chairman and leads it in parliament.
The party opposes same-sex marriage, EU refugee relocation efforts and wants to cut the public funding of abortions.
It has also raised the idea of an “Estxit” referendum on EU membership although it says it does not support leaving bloc, which remains very popular among Estonians. The party is deeply suspicious of Russia and favors continued NATO membership.
As for Ratas, when asked if Center would consider becoming a junior coalition partner, he said “of course” but declined to elaborate.
EKRE leader Mart Helme raised the idea of a Center-EKRE-Isamaa coalition commanding a 57-seat majority, according to ETV/ERR.
Bread-and-butter issues like taxation and public spending had dominated the lackluster campaign, along with tensions over Russian-language education for Estonia’s sizable 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, 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 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 told AFP.
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.
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 compares it to similar parties that have recently gained support across Europe.
The party’s appeal 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 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 rooted in Soviet times, while Reform and EKRE want to scrap Russian-language teaching.