By Mart Linnart and Villu Kand
Prague, 5 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Estonians go to the polls on Sunday (March 7) for the third time since the country regained its independence in 1991.
They will choose from nearly 2,000 candidates to elect the 101 members of the unicameral parliament, the Riigikogu. According to recent polls, the main contest is between the liberal, market-oriented Reform Party and the left-leaning Center Party.
Since neither party is likely to win enough seats to form a government by itself, the main question is which one will have enough support in the parliament to establish a ruling coalition. Led by former Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar, the Center Party has signed a cooperation agreement with the largest rural party, the Country People's Party, whose head is the highly popular Arnold Ruutel, the last Soviet-era leader.
An opinion poll conducted by the Emor polling agency showed that in mid-February, the Center Party had the backing of 17 percent of the electorate, up 2 percent from the previous poll. The Country Peoples Party placed third, with 10 percent.
The pro-business Reform Party, which polled about 15 percent support, has signed a cooperation pact with the centrist Moderates (9 percent support) and the rightist Pro Patria Union (8 percent), the winner of the first general elections after Estonia regained independence.
The Pro Patria government headed by Mart Laar has been credited with launching the reform process in Estonia. When Laar was forced to resign in fall 1994, Moderates' leader Andres Tarand headed the government until the next scheduled elections in March 1995. Former Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilvess People's Party will run on a joint list with the Moderates. Recently, the two parties announced their merger after the elections.
All these parties are agreed that Estonia, a country of 1.5 million people, needs to continue to pursue market-oriented reforms and EU membership -- both of which were top priorities of all previous governments. They have also sharply criticized the current coalition government led by the Coalition Party for indecisiveness and corruption.
According to the Emor poll, support for the Coalition Party has fallen below the 5 percent threshold required to win seats in the parliament.
Above all, the Center Party and Country People's Party seem to appeal most to those who feel they have been left behind by the reforms or who worry that Estonia is turning into a class-based society. Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar, whose political career almost came to an end several years ago over a taping scandal, has become very popular once again. He promises to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor and to introduce a progressive income tax system to replace the current 26 percent flat rate.
The liberal Reform Party, for its part, argues that Estonia needs less taxation, rather than more, and proposes abolishing corporate tax altogether. The party argues that this would help create more jobs. In addition, it has made an ambitious promise to double within four years the average monthly wage to 9,000 kroons ($630) from the current 4,400 kroons. Both Siim Kallas, the former central bank chairman and current head of the Reform Party, and Pro Patria Union leader Mart Laar are committed to the laissez-faire principle. But now that Estonia's economic growth seems secure, Laar would prefer more emphasis to be put on social policy.
Recently the Centrists' support has grown mainly due to non-Estonian voters. There are three parties in Estonia that represent the country's large ethnic Russian community, and they all demand an improved status for the Russian language and less stringent citizenship requirements.
The leaders of these parties, however, have been unable to overcome their differences; they will compete in the elections on two lists and may fail gain to any seats in the parliament. But if they do gain parliamentary representation, they are most likely to support the Center Party, which has the most liberal citizenship policy of all parties in Estonia.
The Center Party may well need the support both of the Russian parties and of the Rural Union and the Pensioners and Families League, which are running on the list of the Coalition Party: the latest polls suggest that of the two main blocs, the center-right one led by the Reform Party will win the most seats in the parliament.
But regardless of the outcome of the vote, observers say there will be no radical changes in the pillars of Estonia's economic policy. As independent Baltic strategist James Oates recently told Reuters: "Most investors in the Estonian market have a relaxed view of the political situation and are going to be satisfied with almost all the likely options available."
(Villu Kand is director of RFE/RL's Estonian Service. Mart Linnart writes for the Estonian daily "Postimees." )