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story.lead_photo.caption Voters cast their ballots Sunday at a polling station in Tallinn, Estonia.

TALLINN, Estonia -- A center-right party that held the prime minister's office in Estonia for more than a decade held a lead in the former Soviet republic's general election Sunday, while a far-right populist party appeared poised to make big gains despite snubs from traditional power-brokers.

With ballots from 280 of 451 polling places counted, the Reform Party had 32.3 percent of the vote. The party, which supports capitalist economic policies and minimal government involvement, held the premiership in Estonia from 2005-2016.

The senior partner in the current coalition government, Prime Minister Juri Ratas' Center Party, received 18 percent in the preliminary, incomplete count. The Estonian Conservative People's Party was running third with 17.3 percent.

The rival Reform and Center parties, the two main political groupings in Estonia since it regained independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, shared an election goal of keeping the Conservative People's Party from making inroads.

The anti-immigration, euroskeptic party, led by father and son Mart and Martin Helme, won 8.1 percent of the vote and seven parliament seats in the 2015 election. An 18 percent showing would translate to 12 seats in the 101-seat parliament, called the Riigikogu.

The two leading parties have ruled out forming a coalition with the Conservative People's Party as a partner, saying populists have no place in the Estonian government. Conservative People's Party chairman Mart Helme said he had not given up on the idea.

"Yes, of course we would like to be in the coalition because every party wants to carry out its promises and program," Helme told The Associated Press at the party's election party in Tallinn's Old Town.

Estonia has a population of 1.3 million, and nearly 1 million voters were eligible to elect parliament representatives to four-year terms. Election officials said preliminary figures put Sunday's turnout at 63.1 percent, slightly lower than in 2015.

Campaigning mostly focused on social and economic issues, including taxes. The Center Party campaigned mainly on public benefits, such as increasing pensions and better support for young families. The Reform Party focused on job creation and improving the climate for businesses.

As prime minister, Ratas, 40, has led a coalition government made up of his Center Party, the Social Democrats and the conservative Fatherland since November 2016. His government replaced a Reform government that lost a confidence vote.

The junior partners in the ruling coalition did not have a strong showing Sunday.

Ratas' government substantially increased excise duties on alcohol, partly on health grounds. The Baltic nation has one of the highest rates of alcohol-related deaths in Europe.

Center and its coalition partners also reformed Estonia's flat income tax system, a cornerstone of the economy.

The Reform Party held the prime minister's post continuously from 2005-2016. Its internal divisions led to the party changing leaders several times in recent years.

Its current head, Kaja Kallas, became the party's first female leader last year. She is the daughter of Siim Kallas, one of the Reform Party's creators and a former prime minister.

Kallas, a lawyer and a former European Parliament lawmaker, said Ratas' Cabinet "has totally messed [up] the tax system, excise duties, income tax system, and people are really annoyed by this."

All parties, including the Conservative People's Party, agree that NATO and the EU are the cornerstones of Estonia's security and foreign policy.

About 26 percent of Estonians cast votes online by a Feb. 27 deadline. Electronic voting pioneer Estonia was the first country in the world to use online balloting for a national election in 2005. No online voting takes place on the day of the election.

Information for this article was contributed by Mstyslav Chernov and Philipp-Moritz Jenne of The Associated Press.

A Section on 03/04/2019

Print Headline: Far-right party makes gains in Estonia


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