Center-left party wins popular vote in Estonia
TALLINN, Estonia (AP) - A center-left party led by a once-disgraced populist barely won the popular vote in parliamentary elections, but a surprisingly strong showing by a new center-right party may shut him out of any new 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 had tape recorded his rivals, won 25.4 percent of the popular vote Sunday with all the ballots counted _ translating into 28 legislative seats.
The center-right Res Publica - formed only a year ago largely by Estonians in their 20s and 30s - performed far better than opinion polls had predicted, coming in second place in the vote with 24.6 percent - but tying the Center Party with 28 seats.
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 - is to join both organizations in 2004.
Res Publica campaigned on an anti-crime, anti-corruption platform, and was one the harshest critics of the divisive Savisaar.
Res Publica seemed to benefit most from what was likely a strong anti-Savisaar vote.
Combined, a collection of center-right parties won 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 of this Western-oriented former Soviet republic of 1.4 million.
Center-left parties have just 41 seats in total. But since none of the six parties command an outright majority, it could take days of tough political horse-trading before a governing coalition emerges.
The conservative Reform Party won 17.7 percent of the vote, translating into 19 seats.
The center-right Pro Patria won 7.3 percent, and 7 seats. And the centrist Moderates - which has tended to ally itself on policy with the center-right - had 7 percent, with 6 seats.
The other center-left group, the People's Union, had 13 percent, giving it 13 seats.
Campaigning focused on personalities - especially on Savisaar, who is loathed by detractors with as much passion as supporters fawn over him.
Opponents warned that if the portly, pokerfaced Savisaar became prime minister, that could spoil Estonia's progressive, pro-West image.
Marko Mihkelson, a leader in Res Publica, said early Monday morning that 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 going on into early Monday.
"I think we also played a key role in keeping Savisar away from the reins of power,'' he said. "Res Publica was the choice for people who wanted to keep him out.''
In the final few days of campaigning, Savisaar was dogged by the local media about alleged kickbacks, tax evasion and financing sources of his cash-rich campaign.
Yet, in recent weeks, some surveys predicted he would win over 35 seats.
The outgoing government is a coalition of Savisaar's Center Party and the Reform Party, which have shared power in a strictly caretaker role since last year.
But even outgoing Prime Minister Siim Kallas, of the Reform Party, hinted he would rather not work with Savisaar again.
The bugging scandal seemed to end Savisaar's political career. But Savisaar, the current Tallinn mayor, roared back by wooing the elderly and poor, who may have benefited least from open-market reforms adopted after Estonia regained independence during the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The cornerstone of his campaign was a vow to replace Estonia's 26 percent flat tax with a myriad of tax brackets that would result in wealthier Estonians paying more.
The Reform Party called instead for the flat rate to be slashed to 20 percent.
Res Publica also opposed changing the flat-tax system.
The economy is sound, with 5 percent annual growth - though Estonia is poor compared to Western Europe. The average monthly wage is 5,000 kroons (US$350).
President Arnold Ruutel has two weeks to nominate a prime minister, who would then have to present a Cabinet to parliament for approval.
About 58 percent of 900,000 eligible voters cast ballots, a higher turnout than anticipated, officials said. - AP