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Estonian PM invites far-right to join cabinet

TALLINN (Reuters) - Estonia Prime Minister Juri Ratas invited EKRE to coalition talks on Monday, reversing a promise to block the anti-immigrant party from the cabinet as he seeks to replace the coalition’s smallest partner, the Social Democrats.

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The decision marks the first time the ultra-nationalist EKRE has access to power, but forming the coalition is far from certain as Ratas’s Centre party lost the March 3 election and the three possible coalition partners have differing views on several subjects including Russian minority.

The Centre party has since 2017 governed in a coalition with the Social Democrats and Fatherland, but the status quo was challenged by the latest election, which split the parliament’s 101 seats between Estonia’s five parties, leaving none with a majority.

Centre - which lost the elections to center-right Reform - and Fatherland decided on Monday they would seek to form a government with EKRE, saying the combination would represent voters widely across counties and political preferences.

Ratas, leader of the traditionally Moscow-leaning Centre party, had earlier ruled out governing with EKRE, which made strong gains in the latest election and almost tripled its representation in the new parliament to 19 seats.

EKRE’s fiercely anti-immigrant message lifted its support during the European migration crisis in 2015 and it has held on to the gains since.

Its gains have come as countries across the EU have recorded a surge in support for right-wing parties following the recent migrant crisis.

Opponents have been careful to give EKRE access to power, fearing nationalists and populists could hijack the agenda and force a retreat on pillars of the EU such as free movement of people and deeper economic integration.

Estonia enjoys strong economic growth and low unemployment.

Growth, however, is expected to slow this year and next, and the regional differences in the country of just 1.3 million people are vast.

EKRE won a vast number of protest votes in the counties farthest from the capital Tallinn.

Reform won 34 seats in the 101-seat parliament, while left-leaning Centre got 26 seats, conservative Fatherland 12 and the Social Democrats 10.

President Kersti Kaljulaid has promised to give the official mandate to form a government to the leader of the largest party, Reform, but this could turn out to be merely a formality if Centre, EKRE and Fatherland cut a deal before that.

Reporting by Tarmo Virki, editing by Ed Osmond