Far-right poised for gains in Estonia vote

Tallinn (AFP) - Estonia's centre-left coalition is fighting for survival in a general election Sunday, challenged by its traditional liberal rival but also a far-right party boosted by a backlash from mostly rural regions in the Baltic eurozone state.

The largely lacklustre campaign has focused on taxation, tensions over Russian language education for Estonia's sizeable Russian minority and the rural-urban divide.

A survey conducted on February 14-20 suggests a very tight race.

Prime Minister Juri Ratas's centrist Centre party received 24.7 percent support among those surveyed, narrowly trailing the liberal Reform party led by former MEP Kaja Kallas with 25.7 percent, according to pollster Kantar Emor.

The far-right Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) meanwhile stands to more than double its support to 21.3 percent, on populist promises of slashing income and excise taxes and pushing anti-immigration rhetoric.

However, with 5-6 parties expected to enter the 101-seat parliament, the splintered outcome will likely make coalition building tricky.

Traditional rivals, Centre and Reform have alternated in government and even governed together over the nearly three decades since Estonia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union.

Both strongly support EU and NATO membership and have favoured austerity to keep spending in check, giving Estonia the eurozone's lowest debt-to-GDP ratio.

Centre has vowed to replace Estonia's 20 percent flat income tax and 21 percent corporate tax with a progressive system to boost state revenue. Reform wants to raise the tax-free monthly minimum and lower unemployment insurance premiums to aid job creation.

Joblessness hovers at just under five percent while economic growth is expected to slow to 2.7 percent this year, from the 3.5 percent in 2018.

A 34-year-old financial risk analyst from Tallinn sees cause for concern.

"As the global market seems to be heading towards a new crisis, politicians' promises to change taxes or finance their promises with deficits isn't very reassuring," said Tiina, who declined to give her surname.

Voting will be a "difficult choice", she added.

- Estxit -

While it won only seven seats in parliament in the 2015 election, the EKRE is set to capture a close third spot behind established parties.

Staunchly eurosceptic, it called for an "Estxit" referendum on Estonia's EU membership, although the move would fail in the overwhelmingly pro-EU country.

The party's deep suspicion towards Moscow means it sees NATO membership as a must and fully supports the multinational NATO battalion installed in Estonia in 2017 as a tripwire against possible Russian adventurism.

Tonis Saarts, a Tallinn University political scientist, draws comparisons to the rise of far-right parties across Europe that oppose immigration and multiculturalism while offering generous social spending.

He describes EKRE's position on liberal democracy, including civic and human rights, rule of law and the separation of powers as "very ambiguous".

The party's growing popularity is largely rooted in the misgivings of rural Estonians, who feel left behind after years of austerity under Centre and Reform.

"These people see few economic prospects and feel that the mainstream parties don't care much about their problems," Saarts told AFP.

According to Mari-Liis Jakobson, a Tallinn University political sociologist, it remains unclear whether "mainstream parties will form a 'cordon sanitaire' around the more radical EKRE."

- Russian minority -

The Centre party has long been the favourite of Estonia's Russian minority, which accounts for around a quarter of the Baltic state's population of 1.3 million.

In 2004, the party inked a memorandum of understanding with Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

But since becoming party leader in 2016, Juri Ratas insists the deal is "frozen" in order to avoid losing voters suspicious of Soviet-era master Russia, especially after its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

The Russian minority is counting on Centre to save the current education system with both Estonian and Russian-language schools created during Soviet times, while Reform and EKRE want an end to Russian-language instruction.

Other parties on the ballot include current junior coalition partners the Social Democrats and the conservative Isamaa (formerly Pro Patria) party.

Nearly a quarter million of Estonia's 880,690 eligible voters have already used e-voting in advanced polling.

Officials are confident the country's online voting system can withstand any attempted meddling.

Polling stations open from 0700 to 1800 GMT on Sunday. No exit polls will be issued, with initial official results due by midnight.

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