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Estonia: Political Parties Prepare For Elections -- Without Alliances

By Jan Cleave

Prague, 25 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Since last November's ban on election alliances, political parties in Estonia have been pondering how best to prepare for March general elections.

Some have discussed mergers. Others have opted to run on the list of another party, while still others have concluded post-election cooperation agreements. It is unclear, however, whether "more order" will be brought into Estonia's political landscape in the near future. President Lennart Meri expressed the hope for such a development when he promulgated the alliance ban two days after its passage.

As was the case in neighboring Latvia before last fall's general elections, more than a dozen parties are now represented in Estonia's legislature. A number of those parties entered the parliament in an election alliance --because alone they would have failed to pass the five-percent threshold to parliamentary representation-- but subsequently pursued their own political goals.

For example, the country's ruling coalition came to power in 1995 as an election alliance composed of the Coalition Party and the Country People's Union. But since, it has set up four separate caucuses, which at times have bitterly opposed one another. Not only has the large number of small and medium-sized parties represented in the parliament frequently encumbered that body's work, it has also contributed to halting the consolidation of the country's political forces.

Proponents of prohibiting election alliances argued that the step would help promote such consolidation by forcing smaller parties to merge with larger ones. Not surprisingly, the ban was spearheaded by the leftist Center Party, which, together with the rightist Reform Party, was leading in opinion polls and was expected to benefit from such a prohibition. It was also no surprise that the Rural Union opposed the bill while the Pensioners and Families Party and most Coalition Party members chose not to vote, since those three parties had been planning to renew their election alliance. The fourth member of the ruling coalition, the Country People's Party, voted in favor of the bill, thereby finally distancing itself from its coalition partners.

Almost immediately after the vote, the efficacy of the election alliance ban was called into question when the Coalition Party announced that the Rural Union and the Pensioners and Families Party would run on its list in the upcoming election. According to a survey conducted last month by the Saar Polling Institute, neither the Coalition Party nor the Rural Union would pass the five-percent threshold; but under current house rules, each party would be able to form its own caucus if it had at least six parliamentary deputies who had run on one list. The announcement prompted a flurry of criticism in the Estonian press that the ban had been "half-finished" and that joint lists should also have been prohibited to prevent parties with less than five percent support from getting into parliament.

In early December, the Center Party submitted a bill to the parliament that would establish the principle of "one list, one caucus" and thereby eliminate what it called the "danger of the disintegration of pseudo-election alliances." Under the draft law, persons elected to the parliament on one election list would be entitled to set up only one caucus. If that principle were to be enforced before the March 7 ballot, only a half dozen or so parties are likely to be represented in the new parliament.

According to last month's Saar poll, voter support for the five front-runners is distributed more or less evenly. The Center and Reform Parties remain ahead with 10.7 percent and 10.1 percent backing, respectively. They are closely followed by the centrist Moderates (9.9 percent), the right-wing Fatherland Union (9.7 percent), and the left-of-center Country People's Party (9.5 percent).

The poll also indicated the only other parties that would pass the five-percent threshold are the rightist People's Party (6.2 percent), which has opted to run on the Moderates' list, and the Pensioners and Families' Party (5.6 percent). The ruling Coalition Party received just 4.8 percent backing. (Two Russian-speaking parties, the United People's Party and the Russian Unity Party, intend to run on a joint list with the ex-communist Social Democratic Labor Party, but their combined vote is currently below 5 percent.)

Recently, two loose blocs have been forged on the basis of post-election cooperation agreements. On the last day of 1998, the Reform Party, the Moderates, the Fatherland Union, and the People's Party signed such an agreement. Two weeks later, the Center Party and the Country People's Party concluded a non-binding so-called "cooperation memorandum" aimed at paving the way for the formation of a ruling coalition. According to the December Saar poll, the combined vote for the center-right bloc is 36 percent and for the leftist one 20 percent.

There are doubts, however, as to whether either of those blocs would be able to form a cohesive ruling coalition. The four parties belonging to the center-right bloc have worked together in the parliament as the United Opposition since fall 1997, but ideological differences exist within that grouping, particularly in the economic and social spheres. The Center Party and the Country People's Party have similar economic goals but, with only 20 percent backing, would be forced to seek other political forces with which to form a ruling coalition.

Center Party leader and former prime minister Edgar Savisaar has refused to name any candidates for such cooperation. He has said only that "Estonian politics have become pragmatic to such an extent that one is ready to work closely with everyone with whom an agreement can be reached on the principles of a political program."