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Slim win for Estonia's left

Savisaar resigned in disgrace in 1995 in the midst of a political scandal.
Savisaar resigned in disgrace in 1995 in the midst of a political scandal.

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TALLINN, Estonia (Reuters) -- Estonia's leftist Centre Party narrowly won a general election on Sunday, but with only the thinnest of leads over rightwing newcomer Res Publica it could struggle to form a new government.

Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar was confident he would become Estonia's new premier. "The party with the most votes should form the coalition," he told Reuters.

Analysts had expected Savisaar to coast to victory with strong support from the many left out in the ex-Soviet state's rapid turnaround into a liberal economy with few security nets.

But when the election commission had finished counting the votes, the Centre Party was only 0.8 percent ahead of Res Publica, which garnered 24.6 percent support.

The shock result lifted hopes on the right that Res Publica could form a coalition with other centre-right parties and force Savisaar into opposition.

"A coalition would be led by Res Publica together with Reform, Pro Patria and the Moderates," said Rainer Kattel, a professor in government studies.

With Estonia's "return to Europe" seen as a done deal after recent invitations to join both NATO and the European Union in 2004, the election campaign had turned to pocket issues and political mud-slinging.

Res Publica cast itself as a fresh alternative to the old parties of both left and right, although analysts still saw the election as Savisaar against the rest.

Tough fight looms

Estonians were busy at the polling booths Sunday.
Estonians were busy at the polling booths Sunday.

No one expects Savisaar, a former premier and now mayor of Tallinn, to give up without a battle.

He may try to reform the current ruling coalition with the pro-business Reform party, which won nearly 18 percent, and bring on board the farmer-oriented People's Union, which took 13 percent.

"I think that it is quite possible that the old coalition will continue, this time with the support of the People's Union," said political scientist Rein Toomla.

Savisaar resigned in disgrace in 1995 amid allegations he had secretly tape recorded his political rivals.

But the Centre party's populist programme and its refusal to say whether it is for or against joining the European Union despite a September referendum could scare off potential partners.

President Arnold Ruutel would normally ask the party with the most votes to form a new coalition, but he recently indicated he might break with the custom and turn to the leader he deemed had the most "capable" alternatives instead.

Most commentators took the comment as a signal that Ruutel was looking for a way to bypass Savisaar.

Res Publica is led by former state auditor Juhan Parts and promises a moral revival coupled with a clampdown on corruption and crime. It has ruled out any cooperation with Savisaar.

The year-old party markets itself as a no-nonsense right-wing alternative unmarked by the many political scandals in the turbulent decade of transformation into a Western-style market-based economy.

The party grew out of the youth organisations of other right-wing parties and was a surprise in local elections last year when it won many districts and did well in most main cities.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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