Leftists fight for survival as Lithuania votes


Lithuanians fed up with economic inequality and mass emigration vote in round one of a tight general election Sunday, which could see the governing Social Democrats lose power.

Russia’s latest deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its neighbouring Kaliningrad exclave also 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 approve — means that voters are more worried about their wallets than security.

Wage growth and job creation have been key rallying cries for many 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 neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius’s leftists on 15.6 percent support.

The centrist Lithuanian Peasant and Green’s Union (LPGU) 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 pass the five percent threshold 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.

Running for the farmer-backed LPGU, political newcomer Saulius Skvernelis blames former 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.

“Changes are coming. You don’t need to pack your suitcases. You can return. Lithuania needs you,” Landsbergis said in a final debate on Thursday.

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.

– Kingmakers? –

Pensioner Vladas Repecka would be happy to give Butkevicius’s leftists another term.

“Equality is more important for them than for others. Maybe they could show more support to the working class, but their experience is important,” he told AFP.

But for Vaida Jankauskiene, a 34-year-old Vilnius lawyer, change is the only way forward.

“My husband and I will vote for the conservatives. They have more professionals among their candidates,” she said.

With some voters hungry for change, 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 just 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 also said the Social Democrats could stay in office by striking their own 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 has agreed to lead a multinational battalion in Lithuania starting next year as part of a NATO troop increase in the Baltic states and Poland.

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 will be open from 0400 GMT to 1700 GMT for 2.5 million registered voters, with no exit poll available and official results expected early Monday.

© 2016 AFP

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