TALLINN - Estonians voted to push ahead with tax reductions and the removal of the Bronze Soldier by returning the Reform Party to power with an even larger mandate to rule.
While opinion polls predicted a victory for the Center Party, Reform pulled ahead to claim a narrow victory in the March 4 poll.
Reform, headed by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, swept back to power by winning 31 seats in the Riigikogu, Estonia's parliament, an increase of 12 seats from 2003.
Despite running the most expensive advertising campaign, the Center Party under leader Edgar Savisaar secured just 29 seats in parliament.
The opposition party, the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL), won 19 seats, a better-than-expected result which could see them join a ruling coalition.
Also involved in early-round coalition talks are the Social Democrats, who increased their parliamentary representation from six seats to 10.
The newly-formed Estonian Greens enjoyed an impressive debut, winning six parliamentary seats in their first election.
One party which performed far worse than expected was the rural party, the People's Union, which dropped from 11 to six parliamentary seats. People's Union leader Villu Reiljan claimed responsibility for the loss and announced his resignation on March 5.
Voters turned out in unexpected numbers, with 61 percent of eligible citizens casting a ballot. Only 58 percent of voters participated in the last general election in 2003.
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said he would wait until the official results were pronounced by the electoral commission before asking the winning party to form a government.
But the parties have wasted no time in beginning coalition talks. Reform held meetings with IRL and the Social Democrats on March 6. All parties said the results were promising.
Yet Reform is also due to hold discussions with the Center Party, its current coalition partner. While Reform and the Center Party hold widely differing ideologies, analysts said their coalition appeared to be working and could survive the election.
"Reform with IRL and the Social Democrats is the most logical and durable combination that could come out of this result," Tartu University political analyst Vello Pettai said in an interview with The Baltic Times (see page 14).
Ansip's early statements show an inclination to return to a coalition with IRL, which would be a repeat of the government which came to power in 1999.
He told local media that the positions of both IRL and the Social Democrats were harmonious with his own party's platforms.
Reform campaigned on a platform of pushing Estonia to become one of Europe's most prosperous nations within 15 years.
The party promised to reduce the flat-rate income tax from 22 percent to 18 percent over four years. It also pledged to keep the current business tax level in the face of EU directives for the system to change.
Reform said it would increase the maternity compensation package to encourage more working women to start families, and would ensure a place for every child in kindergarten.
Some observers remained skeptical about whether the promised prosperity could be achieved with Estonia's current economic conditions.
The result may finalize one of the most contentious issues in Estonia 's the Bronze Soldier monument. The election was seen on one level as a referendum on the Bronze Soldier. While Reform and IRL were outspoken in their desire to see the Soviet statue removed, the Center Party was adamant that it should stay.
Pettai said if Reform and IRL form a government, the fate of the soldier was sealed.
"They were clearly keen on removing it. If they are in power, we could see bulldozers moving in," Pettai said.
Not only did Reform claim victory, but Ansip himself also rocketed to new heights of popularity.
The prime minister set a new record for the most number of individual votes by securing 22,556 ballots against his name. Savisaar came second, winning 18,013 votes.
Tartu mayor and Reform candidate Laine Janes was the third most popular candidate, while IRL leader Mart Laar placed fourth.