First results from Estonia's parliamentary election showed an unexpectedly large lead for the right-wing Reform Party, with the ruling Center Party suffering a slump. The populist EKRE was expected to make gains.
With results from 280 of 451 polling stations processed following a tense parliamentary election in Estonia, the moderately right Reform Party held the lead with 32.3 percent of the vote.
Prime Minister Juri Ratas' Center Party placed second with only 18 pecent, edging out the populist Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) with 17.3 percent. The EKRE, which had pledged promises to cut taxes and crack down on immigration in the small Baltic state, would thus double its 2015 election result.
The nation's Social Democrats and the conservative Isamaa faction are also expected to enter the 101-seat parliament.
The initial results differ widely from a previously published unofficial poll by the Kantar Emor organization, which projected the Reform party would gain 26.6 percent support, ahead of Prime Minister Juri Ratas' Center Party with 24.4 percent.
Far-right looks to make major gains
Ratas' Center Party has been ruling in coalition with the Social Democrats and the center-right Pro Patria party since the previous government collapsed in a no-confidence vote in November 2016.
The Center Party has widespread support among Estonia's ethnic Russian population, which makes up about 25 percent of the country's 1.3 million inhabitants. It has remained popular even after Ratas' predecessor as party leader, Edgar Savisaar, repeatedly became the target of corruption allegations over his close ties to Russian officials.
Nearly every other party has vowed not to form a government with the populist EKRE over its euroskepticism and xenophobic rhetoric. Founded by Mart Helme, the former ambassador to Russia, the party opposes civil partnerships for same-sex couples in Estonia, has called LGBT Pride celebrations a "parade of perverts," and called for major immigration restrictions.
"It will be quite sad if we fall towards populists, as it has happened with other countries, even with the United States," voter Peter Janson told the AP news agency at his polling place in Tallinn.
Skilled workers keep leaving
One of the key issues at play in Estonia's election is the "brain drain" as tens of thousands of young Estonians have moved abroad to work, leaving the country with a serious lack of highly skilled workers. This is seen as particularly detrimental to Estonia's prized startup scene.
In 2005, Estonia became the first nation in history to launch an online parliamentary voting system. Around 26 percent of voters had already cast their ballots on the internet before the February 27 deadline. Nearly 60 percent of the 880,690 eligible voters had cast their ballots, either by traditional voting or online, by 4 pm (1400 GMT) on Sunday. The polls closed four hours later.
es,dj/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)