Estonia’s centre-right Reform party has won Sunday’s general election, beating Prime Minister Juri Ratas’ ruling Centre party.
Reform won 28.8 percent of the vote, giving it 34 seats in the new 101-seat parliament.
Centre stood at 23.1 percent and the far-right EKRE at 17.8 percent, more than doubling its vote from the previous election, according to the State Electoral Office.
The result put Reform leader Kaja Kallas in pole position to become the country’s first female prime minister.
“I have to admit I prepared two speeches,” Kallas told a cheering crowd of her supporters close to midnight on Sunday.
“Now starts the real work to form the government and start to govern this country more intelligently.”
Most opinion polls since late last year put the prime minister’s centre-left party in front, although recent surveys indicated a tight race, with some suggesting pro-business Reform could pull ahead.
Kallas, a 41-year-old lawyer and former European Parliament member, took over as Reform leader less than a year ago. The party’s founders include her father, Siim Kallas, a former Estonian prime minister and EU commissioner.
Estonia’s president is due to nominate the candidate for prime minister in the coming days, after which the nominee will begin negotiations to form a coalition as all parties fell well short of winning a majority.
Kallas looks likely to face a difficult task in hammering out a coalition government in the parliament where all other parties have ruled out governing with the eurosceptic nationalists of EKRE.
EKRE’s success could lead to a coalition of Estonia’s main rivals – Ratas’ traditionally pro-Russian Centre and pro-Western Reform – which have not governed together since 2003.
“Now it’s my duty and goal to work for our party will be in the coalition,” Ratas told Reuters while admitting defeat.
While both are fiscally conservative, Centre has been seeking to make the Baltic country’s tax system increasingly progressive along the lines of richer neighbours such as Finland, while Reform has championed business-friendly reforms and the flat tax that was long the hallmark of the Estonian economy.
Estonia enjoys strong economic growth and low unemployment, but regional differences in the country of just 1.3 million people are vast.
EKRE’s heartland consists of the counties furthest from the capital, Tallinn, areas where its promise to shake up politics resonated with many voters.
A fiercely anti-immigrant message lifted its support during the European migration crisis in 2015 and it has held on to the gains since then.