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Estonia: Parliamentary Vote Ends In Deadlock

Estonia's parliamentary elections yesterday ended in a stalemate, with the left-leaning Center Party and the right-leaning Res Publica both winning 28 seats in parliament. It's not clear yet which party will be asked to form a government, but it's fairly certain that no coalition is possible between them. Whatever the outcome, the country's foreign-policy objectives are not likely to change.

Prague, 3 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two parties, the left-leaning Center Party and the right-of-center Res Publica party, shared victory in yesterday's parliamentary election in Estonia. Each got 28 seats in the 101-seat parliament.

The result left the future of the government unclear. Any coalition between them is considered unlikely.

The Reform Party, led by outgoing Prime Minister Siim Kallas, placed third, winning 19 seats. The People's Party, the Moderates, and the Pro Patria Union also won seats in parliament. No Russian party managed to cross the 5 percent threshold to gain entry into parliament.

Observers say Res Publica's strong showing came as a surprise. The party was formed just 14 months ago and has few stated public policies aside from fighting corruption and restoring integrity to government.

Preelection polls had favored the Center Party, which is led by experienced politician Edgar Savisaar. The Center Party won local elections last October and was expected to triumph in national polls as well.

Tarmu Tammerk, the head of the Estonian Newspaper Association, said Res Publica did well because people wanted change. "The explanation for this could be that to some extent [Res Publica managed to get] the votes of the dissatisfied, the vote by those who are not happy with the current politics, and it turned out that the number of people who are unhappy with the existing parties is larger than expected," Tammerk said.

He said Res Publica drew support both from young people who want swifter market reforms and from pensioners who are dissatisfied with the free market. He said the party's election campaign was populist and that it's not clear what steps the party will take if it finds itself in power. "It wants to describe itself as 'caring conservative,' but it is still unclear what its policies are," Tammerk said. "Its election platform is a mix of all kinds of political beliefs. On some days, [the party appears] social democratic, on others, ultraliberal. It is a mix, and that's why it is an unpredictable force in Estonian politics. Its election slogans were populist, like 'choose order,' which does not mean very much. It has had some populist appeal definitely, and that is why they got [a lot] of votes."

It's not clear which party President Arnold Ruutel will ask to form a government. The Center Party won 4,000 more votes than did Res Publica and would normally have the first chance to form a government. But Ruutel recently indicated he might break with custom and turn to the leader he deemed had the most "capable" alternatives instead.

The Center Party's Savisaar said he is confident his party won and will be allowed to form the government. "This is quite unusual in Estonian politics that two parties get the same number of mandates. But the Center Party has 4,000 votes more than Res Publica, so the president should know to whom to make a proposal for forming the new government," Savisaar said.

Whatever the outcome, analysts say Estonia's foreign policy is not likely to change. Both parties agree on the main issues, including Estonia's drive to join the European Union and NATO.

Juhan Parts, a leader of Res Publica, confirmed that there will be no changes in the foreign policy. "If Estonia will be a member of the European Union, and it will happen very, very soon, all European nations will get a very good partner, a very reliable partner, a very constructive and active partner," Parts said.

Analysts say the main issue was taxation, with the Center Party favoring bringing in a progressive income-tax system to replace the country's proportional system.

Tammerk said Res Publica, as the less experienced party, may have a hard time staffing government positions. "So I think Res Publica now has a very tough task ahead to sit down and think what they can do next. I don't think they will be prepared for this, and they have very limited political experience. So, they even may have a problem forming the government and [staffing] the government with competent ministers," Tammerk said.

Estonia's 860,000 voters were choosing from 963 candidates for seats in parliament. The turnout was nearly 60 percent, higher than in the October local elections.