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Estonian Politicians Maneuvers to Form Coalition Government - 2003-03-03

Politicians in Estonia are facing weeks of maneuvering. They are attempting to form a coalition government following general elections on Sunday that ended in a virtual tie.

Former Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar's Center Party had been expected to face a tough race, but no one predicted an outright draw, especially with a relatively unknown political party.

When the votes were counted, the Election Commission said the Center Party was only 0.8 percent ahead of the right-wing Res Publica party, made up of political newcomers in their 20s and 30s.

Both parties ended up with 28 seats in the 101-member parliament and immediately laid claim to the Baltic nation's leadership, signaling tough coalition talks ahead.

Normally, Estonia's president would ask the party with the most votes to form a new coalition. But nothing about these elections, the fourth since Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union, was routine. President Arnold Ruutel has indicated he might break with custom and turn to the leader he deemed had the most viable alternatives ahead.

Sunday's election boosted hopes among those on the right that Res Publica could form a coalition with other center-right parties, forcing Mr. Savisaar into opposition.

His Center Right party currently shares power in a caretaker capacity with the fiscally conservative Reform Party of Prime Minister Siim Kallas, which placed third.

With Estonia's economy on the upswing and its foreign policy goals of entry into NATO and the European Union on track, the major issue of the campaign was the growing gap between those prospering in the new Estonia and those left behind.

There was one clear result in the election. For the first time since 1991, the new Estonian parliament will not contain a Russian party. Though the Russian speaking community makes up more than one-third of Estonia's population, none of its parties gained enough votes to make it into parliament.