March 1, 2015 / 8:19 AM / 3 years ago

Estonia's ruling, pro-NATO center-right claims election win

TALLINN (Reuters) - Estonia’s center-right prime minister claimed victory in an election on Sunday, cementing pro-NATO policies after a campaign dominated by fears of interference by neighboring Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

A man casts his vote during Estonia's parliamentary election in Valga March 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Prime Minister Taavi Roivas’ Reform Party won 27.7 percent with almost all the votes counted, down from 28.6 percent it won in the last parliamentary election in 2011.

Its main challenger, the opposition center-left Centre Party which favors closer ties with Moscow to ensure security for the small Baltic state, was second on 24.8 percent, a gain from 23.3 percent in 2011.

“The Reform Party is the winner of the 2015 elections,” Roivas said on ETV public television.

A free-marketeer, strongly pr-NATO and the youngest European Union leader at 35, Roivas is best placed to form a new government with other parties, likely to continue conservative economic policies.

But he will have to widen his coalition from his current Social Democratic Party ally since the two are now short of a majority in the 101-seat parliament.

Other major parties have ruled out cooperating in government with the Centre Party, which signed a 2004 cooperation deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party.

Asked if he would work with the Centre Party, Roivas said: “definitely not”.

The Centre Party, which gets about 70 percent of the Russian-speaking vote, wants better ties with Moscow to help the Baltic State that was part of the Soviet Union until independence in 1991.

It also says it wants to help the poor, by raising minimum wages to 1,000 euros ($1,120) a month from 390.

It is unclear if the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on Friday, by an unknown attacker, affected the vote.

Under Reform-led coalition governments, Estonia has been one of few NATO members to keep defense spending at a NATO goal of 2 percent of gross domestic product.

Estonia’s economic policy has also been consistently conservative since 1992 with a flat income tax and fiscal policy that eschews issuing government debt and aims for a balanced budget.

Its public sector debts for 2014 are projected at just 9.6 percent of GDP, against 175 percent for Greece. Unemployment was 7.4 percent in 2014, down from 16.7 percent in 2010 when the country was in recession.

Writing by David Mardiste and Alister Doyle; Editing by Alistair Scrutton

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