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HELSINKI – Nearly a million people are eligible to vote Sunday to choose Estonia's 101-seat Riigikogu legislature, where the outgoing prime minister and his Center Party is pitted against the center-right opposition Reform Party.
Both want to keep at bay a nationalist, far-right party with an anti-immigration, xenophobic and Euroskeptic agenda, which has increased its popularity since the last election in 2015.
Ten political parties and 15 independents — totaling 1,099 candidates — are up for election.
The main contenders are the Center Party, whose backers include ethnic Russians who make up 25 percent of the population in this former Soviet republic; the center-right Reform Party that advocates liberal economic policies; and the Social Democrats, focusing on social and welfare issues.
Juri Ratas has been heading a coalition of his Center Party, the Social Democrats and the conservative Fatherland since November 2016, when the previous, center-right government collapsed after internal disputes and a lost confidence vote.
WORTH KEEPING AN EYE ON.
Polls show the nationalist, far-right Estonian Conservative People's Party, known by its acronym EKRE, has gained in popularity in recent years. Led by father and son Mart and Martin Helme, it claims to represent true Estonian values. The party has harshly criticized the EU's compulsory quotas for taking in refugees.
EKRE's rhetoric has led the main parties to say there's no place for the populists in the new government, no matter how well they do in the election.
THE MAIN ISSUES
Top of the list are economic and domestic issues such as taxation and health care, and how to lure back tens of thousands of people who have emigrated — particularly to neighboring Finland and Britain — leaving Estonia with a shortage of skilled workers.
A few thousand immigrants mainly from former Soviet states are making up for the labor shortage. The government is keeping a tight annual quota on workers from outside the European Union — a particular irritation to the flourishing startup scene.
All parties agree that Estonia is an active EU member and a staunch Washington ally, and that NATO is the cornerstone of the country's security policy. But Russia has maintained interest in the military and security affairs of Estonia and its Baltic neighbors since they joined NATO in 2004.
A Feb. 25 poll commissioned by Estonia's public broadcaster ERR based on 4,700 respondents showed Ratas' Center Party could win 28 percent of the vote, up from 24.8 percent in 2015, with the Reform Party coming in second with 24 percent. EKRE is on 17 percent.
Pundits say the top two parties may end up forming a coalition, possibly with one junior partner from the smaller parties.
CAMPAIGNING AND VOTING ONLINE
One of Europe's most wired nations, Estonia in 2005 was the first country in the world to use online balloting for a national election. Some 26 percent of voters had cast their ballot via a dedicated government website by the deadline of Feb. 27. No online voting takes place on the election day.
Candidates have been trained to secure their home pages in case of hacking and Estonian authorities closely track fake news and disinformation.
Estonia's electoral committee has so far reported no attempts from Russia or elsewhere to interfere with the election, either through hacking, fake news or disinformation. Microsoft said last week that Estonia was not among countries targeted by a hacking group with alleged links to Russia ahead of the EU parliamentary elections in May.