NIPA, Timus Nezametdinov, File, Associated Press
FILE - In this Thursday, April 5, 2007 file photo Estonia's Prime Minister Andrus Ansip holds a glass of champagne and smiles in Tallinn, Estonia. Estonians voted Sunday March 6, 2011 in their first election as eurozone members, with opinion polls predicting another term for a center-right government that has piloted one of Europe's most depressed economies back to growth. Unlike Irish voters, who punished their government last month for their own boom-to-bust experience, Estonians appear to have retained confidence in Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's two-party coalition.
TALLINN, Estonia — Estonians voted Sunday in their first election as eurozone members, with opinion polls predicting another term for a center-right government that has piloted one of Europe's most depressed economies back to growth.
Unlike Irish voters, who punished their government last month for their own boom-to-bust experience, Estonians appear to have retained confidence in Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's two-party coalition.
His government has already made history as the first to serve a full term since the Baltic country of 1.3 million introduced Western-style democracy in the early 1990s following five decades of Soviet occupation.
"This has brought us political stability," Ansip, 54, told reporters this week.
Ansip has won praise both at home and in European capitals for his handling of Estonia's severe economic crisis, which ended years of roaring growth as a housing bubble popped and the global financial meltdown sapped all hopes of a quick recovery.
Economic output plunged a staggering 14 percent in 2009, leaving one in five workers without a job. Fueled by strong exports, growth has returned and the jobless rate has dropped, but at 14 percent it's still among the highest in the European Union.
Ansip's government introduced tough austerity measures to bring down the deficit — it's now among the lowest in the 27-nation EU — and keep Estonia's euro hopes on track.
The eurozone entry on Jan. 1 capped a two-decade-long effort of closer integration with the West, and was a strong boost for the government, even though it occurred in the midst of a European debt crisis.
Tonis Saarts, a political scientist at Tallinn University, said many voters credit Ansip for bringing Estonia out of recession while "avoiding the fate of countries like Latvia or Hungary," which had to seek bailouts from international lenders.
Ansip's government survived another crisis, not long after the previous election in 2007, when he followed up on promises to relocate a World War II memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in Estonia.
The move of the so-called Bronze Soldier drew sharp rebukes from Moscow and triggered mass protests among Estonia's Russian-speaking minority, which makes up nearly one-third of the population. Hundreds were detained and dozens hurt as rioting youths clashed with police officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
Tensions have eased since, but Estonia remains divided by language. Those with Russian as their first language include Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and other ethnic groups who were relocated to Estonia during Josef Stalin's attempts to "Sovietize" the rebellious Baltic republics.
About 100,000 of them are not considered Estonian nationals, either because they don't meet the strict Estonian language requirements for citizenship or they don't want it.
Many of the Russian-speakers who are eligible to vote support the main opposition Center Party, led by political veteran Edgar Savisaar. Polls show his party could finish in the top three, but it's unlikely to find coalition partners to form a government.
Polls suggest Ansip's center-right Reform Party and its conservative partner IRL could win more than half of the votes and secure a majority in the 101-seat Parliament. Right now they govern in a minority with 50 seats.
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If they fail to muster a majority, they may need to seek renewed support of the Social Democrats, who dropped out of the coalition in 2009. A key disagreement between them is that the Social Democrats want to scrap Estonia's flat tax and introduce progressive taxation.
Just over a quarter of Estonia's 912,000 eligible voters cast advance ballots. About 140,000 did so online — a voting method that tech-savvy Estonia has pioneered.
Sunday's vote also is key in determining who will be Estonia's next head of state because lawmakers will vote for a president in the fall. Both the Reform Party and Social Democrats support the re-election of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Jari Tanner contributed to this report.