Estonian president likely to be re-elected in vote

AP News
Posted: Aug 28, 2011 9:48 AM
Estonian president likely to be re-elected in vote

Estonia's president, a former U.S. citizen, is likely to win re-election Monday in a country whose economy stands out as one of the most stable in the debt-ridden 17-nation eurozone.

The presidential vote takes place in Parliament, where the 57-year-old incumbent, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has the backing of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's Reform Party and its conservative partner IRL. Together they have formed the backbone of Estonia's ruling coalition for over six years _ a record in the typically topsy-turvy world of Baltic politics.

The opposition Social Democrats have said they would also support Ilves, a member of that party before catapulting to the presidency in 2006, giving him as many as 75 votes in the 101-seat Parliament. Only a simple majority is needed to win.

The ballot is secret. Indrek Tarand, a member of the European Parliament, is the only other candidate. He has the backing of the left-leaning opposition Center Party, which is favored by Estonia's sizable ethnic Russian community.

Estonia's president is largely a ceremonial figure. Still the presiden is the formal head of the country's armed forces and can dissolve Parliament and call for new elections.

Tonis Saarts, a political analyst at Tallinn University, said Ilves, who was born in Sweden and spent much of his adult life in the United States during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, is popular since he had adopted a non-critical stance toward the prime minister.

"Ilves is largely seen as a mouthpiece for the current center-right government," Saarts said.

The Ansip government can boast the fastest-growing economy in the eurozone, which Estonia joined on Jan. 1. Economic output increased 8.4 percent annually in the second quarter, and Estonia has the bloc's lowest public debt, a huge plus in Europe's debt-weary environment.

Ilves' first term was marked by three key events: the 2007 riots that followed the removal of a Soviet war memorial in the capital of Tallinn, a deep recession in 2008-2009 that triggered runaway unemployment, and the 2011 adoption of the euro.

Many observers praise Ilves' diplomatic skills, which have helped raise Estonia's profile in the international arena. But Ilves, who gave up his U.S. citizenship in 1993 to serve in the Estonian government, is not popular among the country's non-Estonian minorities, who make up nearly one-third of the country's 1.3 million people. Most are ethnic Russians.

Ilves said in a recent debate with Tarand, 47, that Russia should be excluded from the G-8 group of wealthy nations because it lacks the rule of law.

Tarand has shied away from strong criticism of Ilves, campaigning instead on increasing the influence of the president's office.

(This version CORRECTS Ilves' age to 57)