Estonia’s centre-right government is poised to stay in power for a second term after winning a clear parliamentary majority in the Baltic country’s first election as a eurozone member, preliminary results showed.
Yesterday’s outcome was a sign of political stability taking hold in a nation with a 1.3 million population where no previous government had managed to serve a full term since Western-style democracy replaced communism following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
Unlike Irish voters, who punished their government last month for their battered economy, Estonians remained confident in prime minister Andrus Ansip’s coalition even though it, too, presided over a dramatic boom-to-bust cycle and enacted tough austerity measures.
With 99% of votes counted, Mr Ansip’s Reform Party and its conservative partner IRL had captured about half of the votes and 56 of the 101 seats in parliament. The coalition currently controls only 50 seats.
They have the option of inviting the centrist Social Democrats, which dropped out of the government in 2009, but Mr Ansip said “my first instinct is to continue with the current coalition”.
IRL leader Mart Laar agreed. “Given the trust from the voters it looks likely that the current coalition will continue,” he told Estonian public broadcaster ETV.
The main opposition Centre Party won 26 seats and the Social Democrats 19, according to the preliminary results. Two smaller parties missed the 5% threshold and will have to leave Parliament. Voter turnout was 63%.
After years of roaring growth, a bursting property bubble and the financial meltdown combined to cripple Estonia’s economy. Output plunged a staggering 14% in 2009, leaving one in five workers without a job.
Fuelled by strong exports, growth returned and unemployment dropped, but at 14% it’s still among the highest in the European Union.
Mr Ansip’s government pulled through the downturn without needing an international bailout, unlike neighbouring Latvia. It cut salaries for public workers and raised some taxes to bring down the deficit – now among the lowest in the 27-nation EU.
That helped Estonia join the eurozone on January 1, which was seen as a boost for the government, even though it occurred in the midst of a European debt crisis.
“I’m pleased with the economy and that the country isn’t in huge debt ... like in Ireland or Greece,” said Indrek Tops, a 19-year-old student who voted for Mr Ansip’s Reform Party.
After voting in Tallinn, 44-year-old Sven Ohlau said Estonia’s recovery owed more to the global economy than the government and noted that “unemployment is a big problem”. He would not reveal who he voted for, but said “change is good”.
Mr Ansip’s government survived another crisis in 2007 when it relocated a Second World War memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in Estonia.
The move drew sharp rebukes from Moscow and triggered mass protests among Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority, which makes up nearly one-third of the population. Hundreds were detained and dozens hurt as rioting youths clashed with police officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
Tensions have eased since, but Estonia remains divided by language. Those with Russian as their first language include Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and other ethnic groups who moved to Estonia during Josef Stalin’s attempts to “Sovietise” the rebellious Baltic republics.
About 100,000 of them are not considered Estonian nationals, either because they do not meet the strict Estonian language requirements for citizenship or they do not want it. Many of the Russian-speakers eligible to vote support the Centre Party, led by political veteran Edgar Savisaar.
“We were forecast to lose this election but we were able to show that the Centre Party is like a cat that always lands on its feet,” Mr Savisaar told cheering supporters. His party lost three seats but remains the second biggest political group, after Ansip’s party, which won 33 seats.
About 140,000 of the 913,000 eligible voters cast online ballots – a voting method that tech-savvy Estonia has pioneered.
Yesterday’s vote also boosted President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ chances of being re-elected when MPs vote on a head of state later this year, because both the Reform Party and Social Democrats support him.