Kaja Kallas's party wins Estonian general election

Centre-right party will need to form a coalition to remain in power

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks in Tallinn after winning the election. Reuters
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The centre-right Reform Party led by Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, one of Europe’s most outspoken supporters of Ukraine, won the general election by a large margin on Sunday, scoring 31.6 per cent against 16 per cent for the far-right EKRE, latest results show.

The Prime Minister since 2021, Ms Kallas has become popular at home and abroad for her unwavering support for Ukraine, and appeared to be in a strong position to form a coalition majority after a vote focused on national security and the economy.

“To be honest, I was not expecting such a strong result”, she said. “Let’s see what the final results are and then we can do the maths and make proposals for a coalition.”

The victory of Ms Kallas, 45, provides a strong mandate for her pledge to maintain Estonia’s transatlantic course as a committed member of the EU and Nato.

She had said that voters faced a choice between a “friendly, progressive, pro-western” country and an “isolated, bitter” one.

Her victory comes as the battle for Bakhmut in Ukraine — which has raged for seven months and led to high casualties — continues.

Russian artillery have been pounding the last routes out of the city, aiming to complete its encirclement, but the founder of the Wagner mercenary force leading the assault has said his troops are being deprived of ammunition by Moscow.

A Russian victory in the city, which had a pre-war population of about 70,000 but has now been blasted to ruins, would give Moscow the first major prize in a costly winter offensive.

Estonians went to the polls in record numbers, with turnout at 64 per cent. For the first time more than half of ballots cast were online.

Ms Kallas is likely to have several options to form a government. Her current coalition with Estonia’s Social Democrats and the conservative Fatherland party is on track to command a majority in the 101-seat parliament. Estonia 200, a liberal-conservative newcomer to the assembly, is also a contender.

The Centre Party secured 14.7 per cent of Sunday's ballot, Estonia 200 won 13.5 per cent, the Social Democrats 9.4 per cent and the Isamaa (Fatherland) party 8.3 per cent.

Reform is a centre-right liberal party that appeals to business owners and young professionals.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is likely to have several options to form a government. AFP

It has promised to raise military spending to at least 3 per cent of GDP, ease taxes on business and wants to pass a law approving same-sex civil partnerships.

“We support an open, friendly, western-minded, European, smart country,” Ms Kallas said.

Referring to the far-right EKRE, she added: “My biggest competitor thinks that we shouldn't help Ukraine, we shouldn't support Ukraine, we should only look for our self-interest.”

EKRE, which has accused Ms Kallas’s government of “warmongering” and depleting the country’s military stockpiles, sought support from older and rural voters. Its time in government under Juri Ratas from 2019 to 2021 was buffeted by controversy over extremist statements by EKRE members. It seeks to limit the Baltic nation’s exposure to Russia's war in Ukraine, and blames the current government for Estonia’s high inflation rate.

Estonians went to the polls in record numbers, with 64 per cent turnout. AFP

The country of 1.3 million people, which borders Russia and is a member of the EU and Nato, has led international calls over the past year for more military aid to help Ukraine fight off Moscow's invasion.

Estonia's military assistance to Ukraine is more than 1 per cent of its GDP — the biggest contribution of any country compared to the size of its economy — and the continuing war there was on many voters' minds.

The biggest surprise of the election, where more than 900,000 people were eligible to vote, was the emergence of Eesti 200, a small liberal centrist party, which won 14 seats and 13.3 per cent of the vote.

“I think that with such a strong mandate, the [aid to Ukraine] will not change because other parties, except EKRE and maybe Centre, have chosen the same line,” Kallas said.

She was referring to the substantial help that Estonia, a small nation of 1.3 million, has provided to Ukraine in the past year. Apart from weapons, Estonia is providing Kyiv with substantial humanitarian assistance and has welcomed more than 60,000 Ukrainian refugees.

The nationalist EKRE, which runs largely on an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform, has called for a cap on the number of refugees from Ukraine, saying Estonia cannot cope with so many people.

Its leader Martin Helme has also accused Ms Kallas of undermining Estonia's own defences by donating arms to Ukraine.

“It's obvious that what is happening in Ukraine is very important for Estonia as well”, 35-year-old engineer Juhan Ressar said at a polling station in the capital Tallinn.

“Maybe people … have forgotten the importance of independence.”

Estonia has also been grappling with a cost-of-living crisis, enduring one of the EU's highest inflation rates — 18.6 per cent in January.

For Pjotr Mahhonin, 62, said only EKRE “represents the Estonian people”. He accused the Prime Minister of being more interested in “another country”, referring to Ukraine.

Like many Estonians, he said he feared war. “We have a big neighbour, Russia, and it's very dangerous.

“If war starts, we are the country on the front line.”

Updated: March 06, 2023, 12:38 PM