Estonia centre-right on course to win election

Eurozone newcomer Estonia holds a general election, with its centre-right government on course for a new term after steering the Baltic state out of a deep recession.

Tallinn: Eurozone newcomer Estonia holds a general election Sunday, with its centre-right government on course for a new term after steering the Baltic state out of a deep recession.

Opinion polls have given the two-party coalition of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip a clear lead over the left-leaning opposition, despite the latter`s efforts to make political capital from the fallout of a biting austerity drive.

Ansip has been in office since a 2005 reshuffle, a year after the nation of 1.3 million joined the European Union.

In 2007, he was the first Estonian prime minister to win a general election since the republic regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 after five decades under Moscow`s control.

He has been at the helm as Estonia swung from a breakneck boom to a breathtaking slump amid the global crisis and then back to recovery.

Estonia`s economy shrank by 14.1 percent in 2009 -- one of the world`s deepest recessions -- before expanding by 3.1 percent in 2010. This year, it is expected to grow by around 4.0 percent.

The government, which even before the crisis had a reputation for conservative fiscal policies that led to budget surpluses and the EU`s lowest debt, began an austerity drive when the economy went off track.

A key aim was to ensure Estonia met criteria for adopting the euro. It did so on January 1.

Ansip`s critics have accused him of glossing over social problems such as unemployment, which jumped from a record low of 4.0 percent on the eve of the crisis to a post-independence high of almost 20 percent in early 2010.

But the government underlines that it has fallen amid the recovery -- last week the rate was 10.3 percent.

Ansip`s Reform Party and junior coalition ally the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union are set to muster 49-50 percent of the vote, opinion polls show.

On the left-leaning opposition side, the Centre Party`s rating is 22-25 percent, and that of the Social Democrats, 13-16 percent.

The coalition is aiming for a majority in Estonia`s 101-member parliament. It had 49 seats in the outgoing chamber after losing control in a 2009 revolt over a freeze on unemployment benefit hikes -- which then hampered its policy drive.

Polling stations open Sunday at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) and close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT). Results are expected Sunday night.

A record 15 percent of the electorate cast ballots in advance via a secure Internet portal created in 2005. Estonia, known for its hi-tech sector, is the only nation in the world that uses e-voting in general elections.

Bureau Report