Estonia Election Thwarts Coalition Effort

By Michael Tarm, Associated Press, Washinton Post, 2 March 2003

A center-left party depicting itself as a champion of the poor barely won the popular vote in Estonia's parliamentary elections Sunday, which could make it difficult to form a coalition government.

The Center Party headed by former Interior Minister Edgar Savisaar, forced to step down from his ministerial post in 1995 amid allegations he secretly taped his rivals, won 25.4 percent of the popular vote with all the ballots counted—translating into 28 legislative seats.

But a collection of center-right parties, many of which have expressed reservations about cooperating with Savisaar, also made a good showing. The center-right Res Publica finished second with 24.6 percent of the vote—enough to also win 28 parliamentary seats.

About 58 percent of Estonia's 900,000 eligible voters cast ballots, a higher turnout than anticipated, the election commission said.

All the parliamentary parties agree on Estonia's pro-reform, pro-West tack, including its drive to join the European Union and NATO. Estonia—along with Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania—will join both organizations in 2004.

Estonia is considered a star economic performer among the 15 ex-Soviet republics, with annual growth now at 5 percent. But average monthly wages still are only $350.

Res Publica campaigned on an anti-crime, anti-corruption platform and was one the harshest critics of Savisaar. Res Publica seemed to benefit most from what likely was a strong anti-Savisaar vote.

The collection of center-right parties won a combined 60 seats. That puts them in the driver's seat as negotiations begin to stitch together a government from the fragmented 101-seat Riigikogu, the parliament for this nation of 1.4 million people.

Center-left parties won 41 seats total.

But since none of the six parties command an outright majority, it could take days of tough political negotiations before a governing coalition emerges.

The conservative Reform Party won 17.7 percent of the vote, giving it 19 seats. The center-right Pro Patria won 7.3 percent, for seven seats. The centrist Moderates—which tends to ally itself on policy with the center-right—had 7 percent, for six seats.

The other center-left group, the People's Union, had 13 percent, giving it 13 seats.

The campaign focused on personalities, especially that of Savisaar, who is loathed by detractors with as much passion as supporters fawn over him. Opponents warned that Savisaar's election could spoil Estonia's progressive, pro-West image.

Marko Mihkelson, a Res Publica leader, said early Monday he was overjoyed by the surprise outcome.

“Our results were unbelievable, and unexpected. We’re extremely well-positioned to enter a new government,” he said from a hotel convention hall in Tallinn, where celebrations were ongoing.

President Arnold Ruutel has two weeks to nominate a prime minister, who would then have to present a Cabinet to parliament for approval.