Estonians vote in election with populists seen making gains

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Estonians are voting in a parliamentary election yesterday in the small Baltic nation in a ballot where Prime Minister Juri Ratas and his Center Party are pitted against the centre-right opposition Reform Party and where populists are seen making inroads.

Yesterday’s vote in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) member of 1.3 million comes as the far-right, nationalist Estonian Conservative People’s Party, or EKRE, has substantially increased its popularity since the 2015 election.

Both main contenders wish to keep the anti-immigration, xenophobic and eurosceptic EKRE, run by father and son Mart and Martin Helme, at bay.

“It will be quite sad if we fall towards populists, as it has happened with other countries, even with the United States,” Peter Janson told The Associated Press at a polling station in Tallinn.

Nearly a million voters are eligible to elect representatives for the next four years to the 101-seat Riigikogu legislature.

An election commission employee helps a woman with her child to cast a ballot at a polling station during a parliamentary elections in Tallinn, Estonia. – AP

EKRE got 8.1 per cent of votes and seven seats in parliament in the previous election.

Ratas, 40, has been heading a coalition of his left-leaning Center Party, the Social Democrats and the conservative Fatherland since November 2016, when the previous, centre-right government collapsed after internal disputes and a lost confidence vote.

The Center’s backers include ethnic Russians, who make up 25 per cent of the population in this former Soviet republic.

The government is challenged by the Reform Party, a key political party in Estonia since the early 1990s, which advocates liberal economic policies and held the prime minister’s post continuously for 11 years from 2005-2016.

Struggling with internal crisis, Reform has seen its chairmen change several times in the past few years.

Its current head, Kaja Kallas, took over at the helm of the party as its first female leader last year.

Campaigning has mostly focussed on social and economic issues such as taxation.

“The topic that most people talk about are the taxes,” Kallas told The Associated Press while voting in central Tallinn.

Kallas, a lawyer and a former European lawmaker, said Ratas’ Cabinet “has totally messed (up) the tax system. Excise duties, income tax system and people are really annoyed by this.”