Estonia's ruling center-right takes early election lead

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 01, 2015 3:15 AM

By David Mardiste

TALLINN (Reuters) - Estonia's ruling center-right party took an early lead after an election on Sunday overshadowed by fears that neighboring Russia might interfere in the small Baltic State after annexing Ukraine's Crimea region last year.

First returns based on Internet voting, which pollsters say heavily favor the senior coalition partner Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, gave the party 37.5 percent against 28.6 percent it won in the last parliamentary election in 2011.

The opposition Centre Party, which favors closer ties with Moscow and whose voters have less access to the Internet, had just 7.7 percent against 23.3 percent it won in the 2011 election.

Almost 20 percent of all Estonians voted on the Internet.

A free-marketeer and the youngest European Union leader at 35, Roivas is likely to be best placed to form a new coalition, even if the Centre Party ends up winning the most votes. Polls before the election had put the two roughly neck and neck.

Other big parties say they will not work with the Centre Party, which signed a 2004 cooperation deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party.

"Cooperation after the elections with the Estonian Centre Party would be very difficult for any of the other parties," Roivas told Reuters before the vote.

The Centre Party says other parties may drop opposition to cooperating after Sunday's vote in the northernmost Baltic state of 1.3 million people, where about a quarter are Russian speakers.

Other parties accuse Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar, the mayor of Tallinn who was an interim prime minister from 1991-92, of failing to condemn Putin's actions in Ukraine.

They also say his party has misused public funds in Tallinn, a charge his Tallinn city controlled government denies.

The Centre Party, which gets about 70 percent of the Russian-speaking vote, wants better ties with Moscow to guarantee security for the Baltic State that was part of the Soviet Union until independence in 1991.

It also says it wants to help the poor, by raising minimum wages to 1,000 euros ($1,120) a month from 390.

It is unclear if the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on Friday, by an unknown attacker, could affect the vote.

Under Reform-led coalition governments, Estonia has been one of few NATO members to keep defense spending at a NATO goal of 2 percent of gross domestic product.

Estonia, a euro zone member since 2011, has the lowest public sector debt in the EU. Parties differ sharply over wages and tax policy.

(Writing by David Mardiste and Alister Doyle; Editing by Alistair Scrutton)