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Estonia: Opposition Coalition Likely To Govern

Prague, 9 March 1999 (RFE.RL) -- Preliminary returns from Sundays general elections in Estonia confirm that a coalition of three reformist, right-of-center parties have won a majority of seats in parliament and are likely to form the next government.

The results indicate that the Moderates, the Pro Patria Union, and the Reform Party together won just over 47 percent of the vote, or 53 of the 101-seats in the Riigikogu.

If the three parties do form a government, the next prime minister will likely be either Mart Laar, leader of the Pro Patria Union, Andres Tarand, leader of the Moderates, or Siim Kallas, leader of the Reform Party.

The party winning the largest number of seats in the next parliament is the Center Party of former Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar, which garnered just over 23 percent of the vote, and 28 seats. As a result, some observers have suggested that Savisaar, an ex-Communist and Estonia's last Soviet-era leader, may be asked by President Lennart Meri to make the first attempt to form a new government. However, it is not expected he would be able to gather enough support in parliament.

The current government coalition, dominated by a party called the Coalition Party, got some 7 percent of the vote, or just enough to overcome the 5 percent threshold for entry into parliament. The Coalition Party did so badly amid numerous allegations of corruption and nepotism.

Sunday's election, the third general election since Estonia regained independence in 1991, had a record of 1800 candidates grouped in 12 parties plus 29 independents.

There are more than 860,000 eligible voters in Estonia out of a total population of 1.5 million. Some 20 percent of Estonian residents do not have citizenship and do not enjoy voting rights. Many of them are ethnic Russians.

Reports indicate that ethnic-Russians who do have citizenship split their votes between Savisaar's Center Party and two ethnic Russian parties.

One of the ethnic Russian parties managed to win some 7 percent of the vote and to enter parliament. But its influence on Estonia's affairs -- particularly on its controversial citizenship and language laws -- is expected to be negligible.

Due to Estonia's complicated counting system -- all votes must be counted three times before candidates are considered elected -- it may take a week before the announcement of final results. President Meri has to designate someone to try to form a government within two weeks, something which the designee then has two weeks to accomplish.

As a result, Estonia's next government might not step into office until some time in mid-April.

Few foreign policy changes are expected in Estonia regardless of what government rules in Tallinn, with European Union and NATO membership remaining the top priorities. The main changes are expected in domestic policy.

The three center-right parties most likely to form a new government favor a continuation of the single-minded market reforms that have made Estonia the success story of the former Soviet Union. But while reforms have brought near Western levels of wealth to some Estonians, many have not been unable to catch up and still live on wages of $300 a month or less.

This growing economic disparity was one of the main election issues, with left-of-center parties favoring introduction of a progressive tax system to replace the current 26 percent flat tax rate. But rightist parties argued that economic development will cure the social ills better than a change in taxation, which they argued would hamper development and private enterprise. In Sunday's voting, that was an argument that seemed to carry the day.