1ST LEAD: Estonians elect former exile as new president

Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Saturday September 23, 2006

Tallinn- Estonian politicians voted on Saturday to elect 52-year-old former Soviet exile Toomas Hendrik Ilves president in a result which overturns analysts' predictions. Ilves, who was born in Sweden to exiles from Soviet-ruled Estonia and raised in the US, received 174 votes from an electoral college of MPs and local councillors - two more than the number required for victory.

His challenger, incumbent president Arnold Ruutel, received 162 votes. The result is a major upset for the two centre-left parties which supported Ruutel, and which had been widely expected to win a narrow victory in the college.

Ilves has consistently been the more popular candidate in public opinion polls. However, Ruutel's supporters were believed to have a stronger party machine and an inbuilt advantage in the college, which their largely rural constituents were thought to dominate.

The decision puts an end to a month of political intrigue. According to the Estonian constitution, the president is elected by the country's 101-member parliament.

However, if no candidate receives two-thirds of votes, the choice passes to the electoral college. Parties supporting Ruutel boycotted three parliamentary votes in late August in order to ensure that the vote would be decided in college.

The boycott was fiercely criticised in Estonia's press, where it was seen as an attempt to install a partisan president before parliamentary elections, due in March 2007.

Ilves now becomes the second-youngest head of state in the EU, after the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and the Union's youngest elected president. The oldest is Giorgio Napolitano of Italy, aged 81.

© 2006 DPA - Deutsche Presse-Agenteur