Estonia's Ratas steps down as PM but could be back soon

Tallinn (AFP) –


Estonia's centre-left prime minister Juri Ratas resigned on Thursday after his Centre party took second spot in last month's general election, but he still stands the best chance of leading the Baltic eurozone state's next government.

Ratas is in coalition talks with the anti-EU far-right EKRE party and the Isamaa conservatives to cling to power and prevent the winning pro-EU liberal Reform party from taking office.

Efforts by Reform leader Kaja Kallas to forge a majority coalition with Ratas failed last month but President Kersti Kaljulaid is still expected on Friday to task Kallas, a 41-year-old lawyer and former MEP, with forming the new government.

None of the five parties which entered parliament in the March 3 general election scored a large enough majority to govern alone.

Kallas has two weeks to cobble together a coalition. If she succeeds, she will become Estonia's first female prime minister. If she fails, the president will have to tap a new candidate.

In a signal that Ratas has succeeded in clinching a majority coalition, EKRE MP Henn Polluaas was elected parliamentary speaker on Thursday by 55 members in the 101-seat chamber.

"It is unlikely that Kaja Kallas can form a majority government," analyst Rein Toomla said.

"A Centre-Isamaa-EKRE coalition now seems more certain," the Tartu University lecturer told AFP.

Ratas first took office in November 2016 in a three-way coalition with Isamaa and the Social Democrats after a Reform-led alliance collapsed.

His pro-EU Centre party has long been favoured by the Russian minority, comprising around a quarter of Estonia's 1.3 million population.

It signed a memorandum of understanding with Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in 2004.

To avoid losing voters suspicious of Soviet-era master Russia, Ratas insists the deal is "frozen" but has refused to rip it up.

Bread-and-butter issues such as taxation and public spending dominated the election in a country known for its IT savvy.

Joblessness hovers at just under five percent in the EU and NATO member country, while economic growth is expected to slow to 2.7 percent this year from 3.9 percent in 2018.