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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estonian Parliament Rejects Bids

TALLINN, Estonia -- Estonia's fractious parliament dealt a blow to incumbent president Lennart Meri's bid for a second term Monday when it failed to approve his candidacy on a first ballot, forcing a second round of voting Tuesday.

Only 45 deputies of the Riigikogo, or parliament, backed the president in Monday's secret ballot, far fewer than analysts had expected. Thirty-four voted for Meri's opponent, Arnold R----tel.

The Estonian president is elected by parliament and plays a largely ceremonial role, similar to the German president. Meri has been criticized for assuming powers in excess of his mandate, however.

Candidates must be re-nominated before the second ballot, and a new candidate could emerge, though deputies said this was highly unlikely. To win, Meri will need at least two-thirds of the 101-seat chamber, or 68 votes.

A confident R----tel said, "Everything is normal. It's just what we expected," as he left the chamber Monday.

Sergei Ivanov, head of the Russian party faction in the Riigikogo, said Meri's poor showing, and the large number of abstentions, resulted from tactical maneuvering before the second round.

"The political situation in parliament, and the strategies of deputies and factions, are such that everyone needed to know exactly how the parties stood today," Ivanov said. "Based on this result, the wavering and undecided factions will decide on their tactics for Tuesday's vote."

The battle between Meri and R----tel, a repeat of the 1992 election which brought Meri to power, pits the incumbent's pro-Western, pro-market agenda, popular in Estonia's cities, against R----tel's more conservative line aimed at his rural supporters, who have benefitted less from Estonia's rapid economic development since independence.

R----tel's greatest disadvantage may be his close link to the Soviet regime, in which he served as secretary of the Estonian Communist Party Central Committee.

Pre-election politicking took a curious turn last week when five deputies sent an open letter to Meri demanding that he come clean about his own involvement with the Soviets.

The deputies, four of whom are members of R----el's Estonian Country People's Party, charged that Meri's work as a translator for the border forces indicated his collusion with the KGB. They also demanded that Meri clarify his role in Veksa, an organization promoting ties with emigre Estonians, which the authors charged was a branch of the KGB.

Supporters of the president dismissed the letter as a campaign stunt -- one Meri's detractors tried in 1992 as well.

"Among the authors of the letter there are clearly some who are truly waiting for Meri's answers, but the greater number of them are fans of slinging mud at their opponent," Toivo J--rgenson, head of the Pro Patria Union, told the Baltic News Service.

An attempt by Endel Lippmaa, a renegade member of the ruling Estonian Coalition Party who has led the attack on Meri, to bring these charges to the Riigikogo on Monday failed when documents he distributed to deputies were removed.