- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2011

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Estonia‘s center-right government took a commanding lead Sunday in the Baltic country’s first election as a eurozone member, winning well over half of the advance ballots.

The results were an early indication that Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s coalition could win a second term, after piloting one of Europe’s most depressed economies back to growth.

Estonia‘s election commission said Mr. Ansip’s Reform Party got 34 percent and its conservative partner IRL had 24 percent of the advance votes. About 25 percent of Estonia‘s 913,000-strong electorate cast early ballots. About 140,000 did so online — a voting method that tech-savvy Estonia has pioneered.

The Social Democrats, which dropped out of Mr. Ansip’s coalition in 2009, won 18 percent of the advance votes, and the main opposition Center Party got 14 percent. A full preliminary vote count was expected later Sunday

Unlike Irish voters, who punished their government last month for their own boom-to-bust experience, Estonians appear to have retained confidence in Mr. Ansip’s two-party coalition.

His government already has made history as the first to serve a full term since the Baltic country of 1.3 million introduced Western-style democracy in the early 1990s following five decades of Soviet occupation.

“This has brought us political stability,” the 54-year-old Mr. Ansip told reporters this week.

Mr. Ansip has won praise both at home and in European capitals for his handling of Estonia‘s severe economic crisis, which ended years of roaring growth as a housing bubble popped and the global financial meltdown sapped all hopes of a quick recovery.

Economic output plunged a staggering 14 percent in 2009, leaving one in five workers without a job. Fueled by strong exports, growth has returned, and the jobless rate has dropped, but at 14 percent it’s still among the highest in the European Union.

Mr. Ansip’s government pulled through the downturn without needing an international bailout, unlike neighboring Latvia. He introduced tough austerity measures to bring down the deficit — it’s now among the lowest in the 27-nation EU — and keep Estonia on track to join the eurozone. It did that on Jan. 1, which was seen as a boost for the government, even though it occurred in the midst of a European debt crisis.

“I’m pleased with the economy and that the country isn’t in huge debt … like in Ireland or Greece,” said Indrek Tops, a 19-year-old student who voted for Mr. Ansip’s Reform Party.

Stepping out from a voting station in downtown Tallinn, 44-year-old Sven Ohlau said Estonia‘s recovery owed more to the global economy than the government and noted that “unemployment is a big problem.” He wouldn’t reveal for whom he voted, but he said that “change is good.”

Mr. Ansip’s government survived another crisis, not long after the previous election in 2007, when he followed up on promises to relocate a World War II memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in Estonia.

The move of the so-called Bronze Soldier drew sharp rebukes from Moscow and triggered mass protests among Estonia‘s Russian-speaking minority, which makes up nearly one-third of the population. Hundreds were detained and dozens hurt as rioting youths clashed with police officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Tensions have eased since, but Estonia remains divided by language. Those with Russian as their first language include Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and other ethnic groups who were relocated to Estonia during Josef Stalin’s attempts to “Sovietize” the rebellious Baltic States.

About 100,000 of them are not considered Estonian nationals, either because they don’t meet the strict Estonian language requirements for citizenship or they don’t want it.

Many of the Russian-speakers who are eligible to vote support the Center Party, led by political veteran Edgar Savisaar.

Mr. Ansip leads a minority government controlling 50 of the 101 seats in Parliament. If they fail to muster a majority, they may need to seek renewed support of the Social Democrats. A key disagreement between them is that the Social Democrats want to scrap Estonia‘s flat tax and introduce progressive taxation.

Sunday’s vote also is key in determining who will be Estonia‘s next head of state because lawmakers will vote for a president in the fall. The Reform Party and Social Democrats support the re-election of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Jari Tanner contributed to this report.

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