TALLINN - President Toomas Hendrik Ilves fired the opening salvo in Estonia's upcoming parlimentary election by claiming partisan interests had overtaken national welfare and accusing both the government and the opposition of being paralyzed by indecision and infighting.
In the same breath Ilves announced that general elections would be held on March 4, 2007.
Ilves, a former Social Democrat who was sworn in as president two months ago, called on citizens to question why Estonia still suffered shortages of doctors, teachers and police despite its newfound prosperity. He warned voters against being bought by promises of pension boosts and one-off payments 's both common tactics in previous elections.
Often a forthright commentator on international issues, Ilves' latest statement shows that the new president, compared with predecessor Arnold Ruutel, is not afraid to speak critically of internal matters as well.
Ilves addressed the nation through a television statement on Nov. 30 to announce the general election of the 11th Riigikogu (Estonian parliament).
"I do so in a situation where the activities of both the coalition in power and the opposition exude ever-greater temporizing indecision and antagonism, in a situation where partisan benefits have started to smother national interests," Ilves said. "Such a view will prevent us from seeing Estonia's objectives on the horizon. By continuing in this way, we could make ourselves smaller than we actually are, as a country and as a people."
Ilves also warned voters against being lured by vote-buying tactics, such as promises of one-off bonuses and pension increases. (Such tactics were previously used by the Center Party during the last election.) He asked voters whether they considered their vote to be a "transaction or a contract," and asked politicians why Estonia's increase in wealth had not been met with an increase in services.
"In an ever-wealthier Estonia, why are police and rescue officials leaving their jobs? Why are we short of doctors? Where are the motivated young teachers?" he asked.
The close relationship between businessmen and politicians also came under sharp criticism. Ilves questioned why certain businessmen "knowingly disregard the law while still enjoying the patronage of politicians."
Meanwhle, according to opinion polls, Estonia's two main political parties are set for a nail-biting race to power. A TNS Emor poll published in the Postimees on Nov. 30 placed the ruling Reform Party as the leader, with 20 percent of the vote.
The Center Party 's a coalition partner 's slipped from 20 percent in September to 17 percent in the latest survey.
The main right-wing opposition party, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, led by former Prime Minister Mart Laar, produced a lackluster response of just 9 percent, barely ahead of the Social Democrats, whom Ilves used to lead, at 7 percent.
The People's Union, who are closely aligned with the Center Party, came in last with 4 percent of the vote.
Analyst Vello Pettai, professor of political science at Tartu University, said he did not believe Reform and the Center Party would part ways after the election, despite their many differences and frequent bickering.
"The general balance will hold. Those two parties are the frontrunners and will struggle for the number one position," Pettai said. "Obviously [Center Party leader] Edgar Savisaar will talk about raising pensions, and Reform will talk about lowering taxes, and they will both avoid talking about the compromises they will have to make if they come back together as a coalition."
He said a repeat of the Reform-Center coalition was a more likely circumstance than Reform creating a new coalition with the center-right minor parties or the Social Democrats.
"Reform would rather cut a nice deal with the Center Party. They know they can get what they want without having to give up too much. By being together, they don't actually cut into each others' voter base, and they can work together as long as they both get something to take back to their voters," said Pettai.
The biggest compromises would have to come in the economic sphere. While the Center Party advocates a switch to a progressive tax, such a concept is anathema to Reform.