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Estonians set to return government in 5th post-Soviet election

Estonians began voting in their fifth general election since the Baltic state won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, with the main government parties poised to win a second chance to adopt the euro.

Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's Reform Party and Economy Minister Edgar Savisaar's Center Party, the two largest parties in the three-way coalition, may take 66 seats in the 101-member parliament, according to a February 27 poll by TNS Emor. The survey of 1,208 Estonians, conducted January 23-February 13, has a 2.5 percentage-point margin of error. No post-Soviet Estonian government has served a full four-year term and the Center and Reform parties must overcome deep splits over taxes and public-sector wage increases before they can agree on a joint cabinet. The government, which failed in its plan to switch to the common currency on January 1, will also have to decide on a new date after inflation accelerated beyond EU limits.

„I'm voting for Reform because they are the biggest counterweight to the Center Party and will not allow Center, which has a lot of old Communists, to have things their way,” said 31-year-old accountant Evelyn Pastak, voting in the Tallinn suburb of Noemme. „I don't want Estonia to go back to the past.” To join the euro region, countries must keep inflation within 1.5 percentage points of the 12-month average rate of the three EU nations with the slowest consumer-price growth. In December the target was 2.9%, compared with Estonia's 4.4%, which was driven by the EU's second-fastest economic growth. Polling stations in the nation of 1.3 million people opened at 9 a.m. and will close at 8 p.m., when the first results are due. A winner may be declared before midnight.

Ansip, 50, promises not to abandon the flat income tax, as proposed by Center. He would then lower it to 12% by 2015 from 22% now, making it the lowest rate among the European Union's 10 eastern members, attracting more foreign investment and keeping the economy expanding at current levels. Savisaar, 56, wants to raise state pay an average 23% annually over four years, a plan that the Reform Party opposes because it would raise spending and inflation. Reform says it may also damage competitiveness and erode state finances. Ansip's wants to make the country one of the five wealthiest in the EU by 2015. Wages rose an annual 17.5% in the Q4 and unemployment fell to a 14-year low, increasing spending and borrowing power and pushing the inflation rate, at 5.1% in January, higher.

„Even though these two parties are on opposite ends of every known political scale, they are definitely in the same spot when it comes to political pragmatism or the will to stay in power,” said Juhan Kiviraehk, a sociologist and former government spokesman, in a March 1 interview. „From the pragmatic viewpoint it's much easier to govern, the fewer political partners you have.” Center party take 26%, or 35 seats, according to TNS, while Reform will place second, with 21% and 31 seats in parliament. The four-month-old GreenParty may have 7% and seven seats, while the Fatherland and Res Publica Party may take 12% and 15 seats, TNS said. The current government's third coalition partner, the Peoples' Party, will take 5%, just at the threshold for getting a seat in the legislature. Cabinet ministers have had to weather scandals and charges of corruption that alienated some voters and prompted them to back smaller parties. Environment Minister and People's Union Chairman Villu Reiljan resigned on Octtober 6 amid a police investigation into allegations of corruption during property transactions involving the Land Board, the agency for managing and mapping state land. His party won 13 seats in 2003 elections.

The Reform Party in January denied accusations that it asked the privately owned Baltic Rail Services for €1 million ($1.32 million) to aid the state's repurchase of state freight rail firm Eesti Raudtee. Savisaar was forced out after little more than six months as interior minister in 1995 because of a taping scandal. „They are weak persons,” Kristi Joeaeaer, a brand manager at the country's largest fixed-line telephone operator Elion said in an interview on February 28. „They do what they want to do, for their own good and not for the good of the Estonian people.” They do „things that will make themselves rich.” She said her vote will go to the Greens, formed on November 25, or the Social Democrats. (Bloomberg)