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Estonia to hold first national Internet election

A sign of its strong technology embrace, Estonia on March 4 will allow e-voting in its national parliamentary election.

The Baltic state of Estonia plans to become the world's first country to allow voting in a national parliamentary election via the Internet next month--with a little help from the forest king.

E-voting will be introduced for a parliamentary election on March 4, for the first time after it was used in more limited local elections in 2005. It is a fresh sign of Estonia's strong embrace of technology since it quit the Soviet Union in 1991.

The e-voting system was tested earlier this week, including the chance to choose the "king of the forest". Voters could pick an animal from 10 candidates, including moose, deer and boars.

"It is hard to say how many people could vote (via the Internet), but 3,925 people used the system over the last week, when we used different testing scenarios to vote for the king of the forest," said Arne Koitmae of the electoral commission.

Estonia rushed to modernize after independence, and has become a major European base for Internet telephony group Skype: Estonians helped develop the service, owned by eBay.

Just under 10,000 people voted via the Internet in local elections in October 2005. Computer specialists have estimated 20,000 to 40,000 of 940,000 registered voters will vote via the Internet from February 26 to 28, ahead of the March 4 election day.

"I will be voting in these elections via Internet, it is a good system and I think my grandfather, who is over 80, will be doing the same as well, he already calls me on Skype," said Toomas Talts, a technology worker, as he tested the system.

The voting will take place by people putting their state-issued ID card, which has an electronic chip on it, into a reader attached to a computer and then entering two passwords.

Pollsters expect the current two main coalition parties, the center-right Reform Party and left-leaning Center Party, to win the vote, though it is not clear which will be the biggest.

Reform leader Andrus Ansip is current prime minister, though the Center Party has 21 parliament seats, two more than Reform, in the 101-seat house. A third coalition member is the People's Union, with 12 seats.

The uptake of new information technology has come despite the fact Estonia, though with a strongly growing economy, is one of the poorest nations in the European Union. GDP per inhabitant in 2004 was at 57 percent of the bloc's average.

Its infrastructure was decrepit after independence. Even today, outside the glitzy new skyscrapers of Tallinn city center, buildings looked battered, roads are potholed and Soviet-era trolley buses still whirr around town.

"One of the most common explanations as to why Estonians have taken to new IT technology is that everything had to be done new here," said Jaan Tallinn, a senior programmer involved in the development of Skype.

"There were no legacies to deal with, like with bank checks, which were already obsolete. So companies could create new systems and people just used them," he added.

Story Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.