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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Coalition Talks Start After Close Estonia Vote


AP

Edgar Savisaar

TALLINN, Estonia -- Estonian politicians on Monday began the first of several days of tough discussions in a bid to forge a new government that is expected to keep the country on a pro-West path.

Edgar Savisaar -- a once-disgraced populist who critics contend could ruin Estonia's reputation abroad if he takes power, may well be locked out in the political cold -- even though his left-leaning party won the most votes by a razor-thin margin.

While none of six parties garnered an outright majority, center-right parties won 60 seats, giving them a clear edge in the race to fashion a government from the fragmented 101-seat parliament.

Some local media portrayed the outcome as a surprise defeat for Savisaar, who was compared to former U.S. President Richard Nixon after he resigned as interior minister in 1995 amid charges he secretly audiotaped his rivals.

Savisaar was expected to take as many as 35 seats, but garnered only 28.

All of the political parties agree the country's invitations to join the European Union and NATO should be pursued. Estonia, along with Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, are slated to join both in 2004.

Before Estonia can enter the EU, its new government must first convince Estonians to approve the bid in a national referendum later this year. Support has hovered around 50 percent in most polls, but many voters are undecided.

The newly formed, center-right Res Publica -- dominated by 20- and 30-somethings -- was the surprise of the election. It ran on an anti-corruption platform and was Savisaar's harshest critic. Res Publica's leader, the 36-year-old Juhan Parts, could become prime minister. He recently headed the State Audit Office.

"In theory, there are lots of combinations as far as forming governments," said Kalle Muuli, news editor at Estonia's Postimees daily. "But in practice, Res Publica, with more legislative partners, holds the cards."

President Arnold Ruutel, who, in the week before the election, said governments should do more to combat poverty, has two weeks to nominate a prime minister.

Center-left parties, depicting themselves as champions of the poor, took 41 seats. Their only chance to lead the government would be if a center-right group defected to their side.

The outgoing government is a coalition of the Center Party and the center-right Reform Party, which shared power in a strictly caretaker role since last year.

The Center Party won 25.4 percent of the popular vote. Res Publica was a close second with 24.6 percent of the vote, which translated into 28 seats -- the same number as the Center Party.

About 58 percent of 900,000 eligible voters cast ballots.

Besides reaching out to the poor and elderly, Savisaar appealed to Estonia's many Russian speakers -- mostly ethnic Russians who immigrated during 50 years of Soviet rule, which ended in 1991. Dozens of Russians ran as candidates on the Center Party ticket.

Opinion polls indicated Savisaar drew Russian voters away from tiny Russian-dominated parties, none of which passed the 5 percent vote threshold needed to win legislative seats.