Leftists fight for survival as Lithuania votes
Lithuanians fed up with economic inequality and mass emigration were voting Sunday in round one of a tight general election, which could oust the governing Social Democrats.
Russia’s latest deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its neighbouring Kaliningrad exclave rattled nerves just a day ahead of the vote.
But the reassurance provided by NATO’s beefed up presence in the Baltic state — a move that all major parties endorse — means that voters are more worried about their wallets than security.
Wage growth and job creation have been key rallying cries for candidates in this eurozone state of 2.9 million people, plagued by an exodus of workers seeking higher wages, many of them in Britain.
Since Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, nearly half the estimated 370,000 people who have left went to Britain, where uproar over eastern European immigration was seen as a key factor in the Brexit vote to leave the bloc.
Opinion polls show two parties running close behind Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius’s leftist Social Democrats, which have 15.6 percent support.
The centrist Lithuanian Peasant and Green’s Union (LPGU) would take 14 percent, while the conservative Homeland Union enjoy 13.7 percent backing, local pollsters Spinter Tyrimai found.
Five to eight parties are expected to enter parliament, signalling complicated coalition talks.
Butkevicius, 57, has promised further hikes in the minimum wage and public sector salaries, but a new labour law which makes it easier to hire and fire employees could eat away his party’s slim lead.
Voting in Vilnius Sunday, Butkevicius vowed to “live up to expectations” if his party wins.
But President Dalia Grybauskaite has said she voted “for changes” in an apparent swipe at him.
– ‘Reduce emigration’ –
Running for the farmer-backed LPGU, political newcomer Saulius Skvernelis blames previous governments for failing to stem the labour exodus.
Homeland Union leader Gabrielius Landsbergis, 34, has vowed to fight emigration and poverty by creating jobs, reforming education, boosting exports and foreign investment.
“What this country needs now is more jobs because people are fleeing the regional cities, they are migrating out of Lithuania because there is nothing to do,” Landsbergis told AFP after voting in Vilnius, adding that he is keen to form a coalition with the LPGU.
Lithuania’s economy staged a remarkable recovery after taking a nosedive during the 2008-9 global financial crisis, and is slated to grow by 2.5 percent this year.
But average monthly wages of just over 600 euros ($670) after taxes are among the EU’s lowest, while inequality and poverty remains comparatively high.
“The most important thing is to reduce emigration. Though all of my grandchildren are in Lithuania, I don’t want them to leave,” Vilnius pensioner Danute Tonkuniene told AFP after voting for Landsbergis’s conservatives.
– Kingmakers? –
Public sector employee Dale Adasiune said she voted for “new faces” from the LPGU.
“I returned from Spain four years ago and I don’t want to leave again. I found a job, engaged in volunteer work, but if nothing changes, I’ll leave again,” she told AFP.
Vilnius pensioner Jonas, who declined to reveal his surname, also chose the LPGU.
“I used to vote for the Social Democrats, but they’ve disappointed me,” he said.
Analysts point to Skvernelis’ LPGU as potential kingmakers in coalition talks.
The 46-year-old former national police chief, popular for clobbering corruption in the force, has become a hot political commodity since taking up politics two years ago.
“The most likely coalition is one based on the Homeland Union and LPGU,” Ramunas Vilpisauskas, director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science in Vilnius, told AFP.
But he said the Social Democrats could stay in office by striking a deal with the LPGU, led by Ramunas Karbauskis, one of Lithuania’s biggest farmland owners.
While all parties want to boost defence spending and the NATO presence, security concerns over Russia have not played a major role in the campaign.
Germany agreed to lead a multinational battalion in Lithuania starting next year as part of a NATO troop boost in region.
Seventy lawmakers are elected by proportional representation from party lists and 71 in single-member constituencies, where final run-off rounds are due on October 23.
Polls opened at 0400 GMT and are to close at 1700 GMT for 2.5 million registered voters, with no exit poll available and official results expected early Monday.