The Guardian, March 3, 2019
Estonia is on track for its first female prime minister after the opposition liberal Reform party won the general election, outpacing the governing centre-left party, and a surging far-right party buoyed by a backlash from mostly rural voters.
Kaja Kallas, a lawyer and former MEP who leads Reform, wooed voters by promising to cut taxes and unemployment insurance premiums in an attempt to aid job creation.
Issues such as taxation and public spending dominated the election on Sunday, along with tensions over Russian-language education for the sizeable Russian minority, and the rural-urban divide.
Reform won 28.8% of the vote, ahead of the Centre party on 23%, while the far-right Conservative People’s party (EKRE) more than doubled its previous vote share to 17.8%. Turnout was just over 63%.
Kallas, a Europhile, is the daughter of the former Estonian prime minister Siim Kallas, who also led the Reform party before serving as a European commissioner.
If she can assemble a viable coalition, Kallas will govern in tandem with the president, Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia’s first female head of state, who took office in 2016.
Kallas, who promised to “put together the government and start running the country with common sense”, said Reform would consider coalitions with three of the four other parties that entered parliament, ruling out EKRE as “not a choice for us”.
She said Reform has “strong differences” with Centre over taxation, citizenship and education.
Asked whether his Centre party would consider becoming a junior coalition partner, Jüri Ratas said “of course”, but declined to elaborate.
With a combined total of 60 seats in the 101-seat parliament, the two parties could govern jointly as they have in the past.
Centre and Reform have alternated in government over the nearly three decades since Estonia broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Both parties strongly support Estonia’s EU and Nato membership, which they see as a buffer against Russia.
They have favoured austerity to limit public spending, giving the country the eurozone’s lowest debt-to-GDP ratio.
Centre had vowed to increase pensions by 8.4% and replace the flat income tax rate of 20% and corporate tax rate of 21% with a progressive system to increase state revenue.
Unemployment is at just under 5%, while economic growth is expected to slow to 2.7% this year.
Kallas could also woo two other parties that currently govern in a coalition with the Centre party – the Social Democrats and the conservative Isamaa – to obtain a 56-seat majority.
While it won only seven seats at the 2015 election, EKRE now has 19, after winning support by promising to slashing income and excise taxes, and through anti-immigration messages.
Experts said its appeal is largely rooted in the misgivings of rural Estonians, who feel left behind after years of austerity.
The EKRE leader, Mart Helme, raised the idea of a coalition with Centre and Isamaa commanding a 57-seat majority, according to the public broadcaster ETV/ERR.
The Eurosceptic party has 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 to deter potential Russian actions.
Tõnis Saarts, a Tallinn University political scientist, described EKRE’s position on liberal democracy – including civic and human rights, rule of law and the separation of powers – as “very ambiguous” and compared it to similar parties that have recently gained support across Europe.
The Centre party has long been favoured by Estonia’s Russian minority, which makes up about one-quarter of the country’s population of 1.3 million people.
This group had counted on Centre to preserve the existing education system, which incorporates Estonian and Russian-language schools, while Reform and EKRE want to scrap Russian-language teaching.