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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estonia Parliament Denies Meri's Bid

TALLINN, Estonia -- Estonian President Lennart Meri's bid for a second term faltered badly Tuesday when parliament denied him victory on two final ballots, throwing the race open to new candidates.

In the final ballot, Meri was supported by 52 of parliament's 101 deputies, far short of the 68 needed to win. His opponent, Arnold R----tel, received 32 votes.

The choice of Estonia's next president now moves to an electoral college composed of the deputies of the Riigikogu, or parliament, and some 250 representatives of local government councils. The vote must take place within one month.

The involvement of the local councils gives the electoral college a far more rural flavor than parliament, which some political analysts speculated could favor R----tel, who is an agronomist and the chairman of the Estonian Country People's Party.

But parliamentarians were wary about making forecasts Tuesday.

"It's very hard to say what the electoral college will decide, because this is the first time it has been formed. It could surprise everyone," said Mart Laar, the former prime minister and a deputy from the Pro Patria Union faction.

Mart Nutt, an independent nationalist deputy from the so-called "right-wingers list," said the electoral college was unpredictable because the convictions of local politicians were unknown. "I believe Meri and R----tel are running neck-and-neck right now, and a rough campaign is in store," he said.

All candidates must be re-nominated before the electoral college convenes, so a dark horse could still make a run for the presidency. New candidates most often mentioned Tuesday included the foreign minister, Siim Kallas, and the speaker of the Riigikogo, Toomas Savi.

Meri had not been expected to win outright in the Riigikogu: R----tel is deputy speaker there and has a reliable bloc of about 30 deputies behind him.

But analysts had expected Meri to do much better -- perhaps winning 60 votes -- and to ride that momentum into the electoral college. In the end, Meri scarcely broke 50, as 15 to 20 deputies abstained in all three rounds.

According to Laar, Meri had only himself to blame. "The main problem was that in the last stage of negotiations, the president was so sure of victory that he was not very serious in his talks with the undecided factions. As a result they turned against him and banded together to keep him from winning," he said.

Alexei Semyonov, a leader of the United People's Party, which represents Estonia's large ethnic Russian minority, said the lack of support for Meri was to be expected because the president had remained aloof from party politics, and therefore had no reliable base in parliament.

The Riigikogu's failure to find a consensus candidate highlighted the "fractured state" of Estonian politics, Semyonov said, adding that any third candidate would likely come from outside politics. "This could be the only solution to the problem of these warring factions," he said.

But such a solution may well not please parliament. "The main idea behind having the president elected by parliament was to forge a consensus of diverse political forces. Now the president will be chosen by the local governments, which have a completely different agenda, and he will almost certainly be less acceptable to parliament than even Meri," Semyonov said.

The date of the electoral college vote will be set Wednesday.