Estonians vote for stability and cabbages

  • 2002-10-24
  • Aleksei Gunter

Two ruling parties and one political newcomer were the biggest vote-getters in Estonia's municipal elections.

The results are seen by many as a preview of next year's general election and suggest the success of mainstream parties in winning support among the country's Russian speaking minorities, in contrast with neighboring Latvia.

In Tallinn the Center Party of Mayor Edgar Savisaar won 38.5 percent of the vote and more than 50 percent of seats on the City Council. It also did well in other municipalities, including the northwestern, Russian-dominated city of Narva.

The center-right Reform Party of Prime Minister Siim Kallas, which shares power with the Center Party in the national governmentand in Tallinn, won 17.5 percent of the vote in the capital and is likely to remain in a coalition with the Center Party there.

The Centrists will have 32 of the City Council's 63 seats while Reform will control 11. Savisaar is likely to remain mayor, Center Party officials said.

Some 52.4 percent of eligible voters took part in the Oct. 20 elections for 241 local councils, the central election commission said.

The result of elections in Estonia's main cities, especially Tallinn, was largely seen as a vote of confidence in the current national government. Analysts said the results suggested no major shakeups before general elections in March.

"The likely stability at the level of Tallinn City Council will guarantee that national politics will continue in a stable way until March, not affecting the country's smooth preparations to join the EU and NATO," said political scientist Rein Toomla.

Estonia, along with Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, hopes to win an invitation to NATO in November and conclude EU negotiations by the end of the year with an eye on joining in 2004.

Newcomer Res Publica, a mix of ethnic Estonian and Russian politicians, did better than expected, drawing some votes away from the Reform Party, and could become a junior partner in governments in Tallinn, Tartu and Parnu, where it won 17, eight and nine seats respectively.

Party activists even resorted to handing out free cabbages to voters at one of Tallinn's outdoor food markets.

"But so far, no party has offered us cooperation," said Res Publica spokesman Allar Tankler.

Running on an anti-corruption platform, Res Publica fielded candidates in 117 municipalities and received about 15 percent of the total vote.

Polls had predicted the Center Party would do well but Savissar, one of Estonia's most popular politicians, said he was surprised at the scale of his success in Tallinn.

"Just think of it, we've never had a situation when one party has more than 50 percent of the seats," Postimees quoted him as saying. "I couldn't have hoped the victory would be that big."

A poll conducted by the Tallinn research company Saarpoll said Res Publica won support mainly from voters uncertain about their political preferences. Before the election, a Saarpoll survey predicted the party would win 10.2 percent of the vote.

"This party attracted people who had stayed out of politics before," said Saarpoll director Andrus Saar.

Losing out to Res Publica were the right-wing Pro Patria Union of former Prime Minister Mart Laar and the Moderates of former Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves. Both performed poorly and were left without seats in the Tallinn City Council.

Moderates' leader and former Social Affairs Minister Eiki Nestor said the party failed to advertise properly among the city's Russian-speaking minority, roughly half of Tallinn's 400,000 residents.

Several parties tried to attract minority votes with promises of pension increases, and some analysts said Res Publica did well by taking a more moderate line on ethnic issues.

Earlier this year Res Publika advocated scrapping language tests for non-citizens, opting instead for a 100-hour course in language, culture and civics.

Traditional Russian-oriented parties also fared poorly, though. The United People's Party won just over 8 percent of the vote and only three seats in Tallinn.

"The Russian voters have understood that their interests are better protected in mainstream parties, not in ethnic-Russian pressure groups whose competence in general politics has been low," said Toomla.

The Center Party did press the right buttons in Narva, where Russian-speakers make up a large majority of the population. The party will get 18 of the City Council's 31 seats and will likely rule alone without coalition partners.

Both citizens and non-citizens are allowed to vote in Estonian municipal elections. Some 19 percent of Estonian residents are non-citizens, most of them Russian-speakers. Residents who moved to the country after 1940 and their descendants must pass language tests to win citizenship.