Reform Party Wins Estonian Election

By KARL RITTER
The Associated Press
Sunday, March 4, 2007; 7:08 PM

TALLINN, Estonia -- The party of Estonia's prime minister, who pledged to preserve the market-friendly policies credited with the Baltic nation's impressive growth, narrowly won parliamentary elections Sunday, official preliminary results showed.

Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's center-right Reform Party had 27.8 percent of the votes, ahead of the left-leaning Center Party led by political veteran Edgar Savisaar, which had 26.1 percent, the Electoral Committee said, with nearly all districts counted.

An EU and NATO member since 2004, Estonia is known for its Internet technology and is the hub of the online telephony company Skype. But the country grapples with some of the EU's worst health problems, including high rates of alcoholism, HIV infection and traffic-related deaths.

The former Soviet republic is also struggling to integrate its Russian-speaking minority _ about one-third of the population _ which often complains of discrimination.

The result means President Toomas Hendrik Ilves likely will ask Ansip to form the next government of the country of 1.3 million. The two coalition partners will likely have 60 seats in the 101-member Parliament, enough to become the first government to survive an election since the Baltic country regained independence in 1991.

But neither Ansip nor Savisaar would commit to continue ruling together.

"It's clear that people are supporting the coalition parties," the 50-year-old Ansip told The Associated Press as he watched the vote count at the Reform Party's election night gathering. But he added: "It's too early to make conclusions."

The partial results included 30,000 votes cast online earlier in the week in a landmark Internet ballot. A final vote count was expected within days, barring court challenges.

The election was the world's first parliamentary ballot to allow Internet voting. Officials said the system proved reliable in municipal elections in 2005 despite concerns about hacker attacks, identity fraud and vote count manipulation.

Ansip pledged to continue lowering Estonia's flat tax and keep in place the policies deemed responsible for the soaring economy. Worries of overheating have emerged, however, after Estonia posted a record 11.5 percent growth rate in 2006.

High inflation has delayed Estonia's plans to adopt the EU's common currency, while a westward flow of skilled workers has led to a labor shortage.

Ansip and Savisaar, Estonia's first prime minister after regaining independence, have maintained a pragmatic political alliance for two years despite political differences.

Savisaar, whose party draws support from Russian-speakers, favors a progressive tax system and a more generous welfare system to help narrow the gap between rich and poor.

Tensions with the Russian-speakers and with Moscow peaked recently over plans to dismantle the Bronze Soldier, a monument honoring Soviet soldiers killed in World War II. Russians see it as a tribute to the Red Army's victory over Nazi Germany, but many Estonians consider it a painful reminder of five decades of Soviet oppression.

About 61 percent of the 895,000 registered voters turned out at the polls, according to preliminary figures.

Traditionally Estonia's governments have been short-lived. None of the 12 Cabinets since 1991 have stayed in power for a full four-year term.

____

Associated Press reporter Jari Tanner in Tallinn contributed to this report.


© 2007 The Associated Press