TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Estonia's parliament on Monday re-elected U.S.-educated President Toomas Hendrik Ilves for a second five-year term as head of state of the eurozone newcomer which is celebrating 20 years of independence from the Soviet Union.
The 57-year-old Ilves received 73 votes, compared with 25 for challenger Indrek Tarand. One vote was blank and two were disqualified in Monday's ballot in the 101-seat Parliament.
It was the first time a presidential candidate has managed to get the required two-thirds majority since Estonia regained freedom in 1991. Previous presidential elections were decided by an electoral college after lawmakers failed to select a winner.
Ilves was a strong favorite heading into the election, with backing from the parties in the center-right government as well as the opposition Social Democratic Party, which he used to belong to.
Tarand, 47, was supported by the left-leaning opposition Center Party, favored by Estonia's Russian-speaking minority, which makes up nearly one-third of the population of 1.3 million. He is a member of the European Parliament and son of former Prime Minister Andres Tarand.
Born in Sweden, Ilves grew up in the United States where he studied psychology. He holds a bachelor's degree from Columbia University and a master's degree from Pennsylvania University.
He worked as a teacher and lecturer in the U.S., Canada and as a researcher for Radio Free Europe in Germany before giving up his U.S. citizenship to be appointed as Estonia's ambassador to the United States in 1993. Before becoming Estonia's third post-Cold War president in 2006, he served as the Baltic country's foreign minister twice and held a seat in the European Parliament.
The bow tie-sporting Ilves enjoys strong backing from ethnic Estonians but is less popular among ethnic Russians, whose numbers swelled during the population transfers of the Soviet regime. Divisions between the two groups remain deep 20 years after Estonia declared independence on Aug. 20, 1991.
Ilves, who unlike his predecessors doesn't speak Russian, often gives voice to the distrust with which many Estonians view their giant eastern neighbor. In a debate with Tarand during the election campaign, he said Russia lacks the rule of law and should be excluded from the G-8 group of wealthy nations.
Though the president, whose powers are largely ceremonial, is seen as being above the fray of partisan politics, Ilves has expressed support for the center-right government's successful efforts to revitalize the economy after a crippling recession. Estonia, which joined the eurozone on Jan. 1, now has one of the best performing economies in the debt-ridden 17-nation currency bloc.
Economic output increased 8.4 percent annually in the second quarter, and Estonia's public debt is the lowest in the eurozone.
"Little by little, we're becoming a boring Nordic country," Ilves told lawmakers after the vote, referring to the more prosperous welfare states across the Baltic Sea.