People fill their ballot papers at a poling station during parliamentary elections in Tallinn, Estonia, Sunday, March 5, 2023. Polling stations have opened in Estonia for a general election that the center-right Reform Party of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, one of Europe s most outspoken supporters of Ukraine, is a favorite to win. AP
Kallas faced a challenge from the far-right populist EKRE party, which seeks to limit the Baltic nation's exposure to the Ukraine crisis and blames the current government for Estonia's high inflation rate.
Nine political parties in all fielded candidates for Estonia’s 101-seat parliament, or Riigikogu. Over 900,000 people were eligible to vote in the general election, and nearly half voted in advance.
By the time polls closed at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), the overall turnout was 63.7%, according to initial information, a rate on par with the 2019 election. Preliminary election results were expected by early Monday.
National security in the wake of neighboring Russia's invasion of Ukraine and socio-economic issues, particularly the rising cost of living, were main campaign themes.
Kallas, 45, became prime minister in 2021 and has emerged as one of Europe’s most outspoken supporters of Ukraine during the year-long war. She is seeking a second term, with her standing enhanced by her international appeals to impose sanctions on Moscow.
A Baltic nation of 1.3 million people that borders Russia to the east, Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has taken a clear Western course, joining NATO and the European Union.
Five parties were represented in the outgoing parliament. Kallas’ party has led the current coalition government with the small conservative Fatherland party and the Social Democrats.
Her center-right Reform Party, a key player in Estonian politics since the mid-1990s, continuously held the prime minister’s post during 2005-2016 and regained it in 2021. For some voters, the party's long time in power represents stability, while others are looking for a change.
“Right now, I think everything is good as it is ... the people who are taking decisions," voter Katlin Kivisaar said in Estonia's capital, Tallinn, referring to the composition of the current Cabinet. "So I hope it will stay as it is.”
Another voter, Oskar Vanem, said he thought it was time to switch things up. "Everything depends on if a new party is elected to the government. Many are waiting for it. One fraction (Reform Party) can’t govern eternally like (Russian President Vladimir) Putin does in Moscow. We need changes,” he said.
Polls indicated Kallas’ party was likely to win the most votes in Sunday's election. EKRE party leader Martin Helme, the prime minister's main challenger, faults Kallas for the country’s inflation rate of 18.6%, one of the EU’s highest, and accuses her of undermining Estonia’s defenses by giving weapons to Ukraine.
“We’ve never questioned support for Ukraine. We’ve never questioned Estonia's membership in NATO," Helme said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“That’s just crazy talk. But what we have been is very critical of the government because they have not assessed the risk to Estonia and to Estonian security and defense.”
"We have basically given away all our heavy weaponry to Ukraine, and the replacement comes within two or three years. Basically, that is an invitation of aggression,” he said.
The outspoken and polarizing EKRE entered into the mainstream of Estonian politics in the 2019 election, when it emerged as the third-largest party with nearly 18% of the vote.
The euroskeptic party was co-founded by Martin Helme’s father, Mart Helme, and was part of a Center Party-led government during 2019-21.
Kallas argues it’s in her country’s interests to help Kyiv. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine sparked fears in Tallinn that a Russian victory could embolden Moscow to switch its attentions to other countries it controlled in Soviet times, including Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
She says that Estonia’s defenses remain strong as the United States and other NATO allies have supplied top-notch weapons like the HIMARS rocket system to Ukraine and also to Estonia.