Estonia votes as far-right surge challenges mainstream

Published March 3, 2019, 12:46 PM

by Francine Ciasico

By Agence France-Presse 

Estonians vote Sunday in a general election with the center-left coalition dueling its traditional liberal rivals and a surging far-right party buoyed by a backlash from mostly rural voters in the Baltic eurozone state.

Polls suggest Sunday's election will be a tight race between the Centre and Reform parties (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
Polls suggest Sunday’s election will be a tight race between the Centre and Reform parties (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

The lacklustrercampaign has focused on bread and butter issues like taxation and public spending, as well as tensions over Russian language education for Estonia’s sizeable Russian minority and the rural-urban divide.

Nearly 40 percent of the 880,690 eligible voters have used e-voting in advanced polling, with officials confident the online system can withstand any attempted meddling.

A poll collating e-voters and those intent on using paper ballots on Sunday suggests a tight race.

Prime Minister Juri Ratas’s centrist Centre party scored 24.5 percent support, narrowly trailing the liberal Reform party led by former MEP Kaja Kallas with 26.6 percent, according to pollster Kantar Emor.

Promising to slash income and excise taxes and pushing anti-immigration rhetoric, the far-right EKRE stands to more than double its support to 17.3 percent, but could struggle to find coalition partners.

With 5-6 parties expected to enter the 101-seat parliament, the splintered outcome will make for tricky coalition building.

Tax breaks, wage hikes 

Traditional rivals, Centre 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 Estonai’s EU and NATO membership and have favoured austerity to keep spending in check, giving the country the eurozone’s lowest debt-to-GDP ratio.

Centre 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 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 the 3.9 percent in 2018.

Calling existing taxes “difficult to cope with”, Marilyn, a small business owner from Tallinn who declined to give her surname, told AFP that Reform’s proposed tax breaks get her vote.

Alexander, a Russian-speaking factory worker, wants pension and salary hikes.

“It’s impossible to survive with the minimum wage,” he told AFP in Tallinn, referring to Estonia’s 540 euro ($615) monthly minimum.