Lithuania Opposition eyes power in run-off election

Sixty-eight of the 141 seats in parliament are up for grabs Sunday, with the balance filled in round one.

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The first round of a general election in Lithuania left Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius's Social Democrats with just 14.42 percent of the vote play

The first round of a general election in Lithuania left Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius's Social Democrats with just 14.42 percent of the vote

(AFP/File)
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Lithuanians fed up with low wages and a labour exodus from their Baltic eurozone state were voting Sunday in a run-off election expected to dislodge the leftist government.

Tipped as the next prime minister, leader of the conservative Homeland Union Gabrielius Landsbergis has presented himself as the face of change.

The 34-year-old grandson of Lithuanian independence icon Vytautas Landsbergis has vowed to fight emigration by creating jobs, reforming education, boosting exports and foreign investment.

His conservatives won the October 9 first round of the election with 21.70 percent (22 seats), narrowly ahead of the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party (LPGU) with 21.53 percent (21 seats).

Tipped as the next prime minister, Homeland Union leader Gabrielius Landsbergis has presented himself as the face of change in Lithuania play

Tipped as the next prime minister, Homeland Union leader Gabrielius Landsbergis has presented himself as the face of change in Lithuania

(AFP/File)

Leftists finished third with just 14.42 percent (10 seats), a huge blow for Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius's Social Democrats.

Wage growth and job creation have been key rallying cries for candidates in the country of 2.9 million people, plagued by an exodus of workers seeking higher wages.

Since Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, an estimated 370,000 people have left -- nearly half to Britain, where concern over immigration from eastern Europe was seen as a key factor in the shock Brexit vote to leave the bloc.

Jobs are key

Landsbergis has garnered support among disillusioned voters like Vilnius businessman Linas Bagiusis.

"I want change. We need new ideas and new energy, especially to curb emigration and stop all the young people from fleeing," he told AFP on Sunday outside a polling station in central Vilnius.

Prime Minister Butkevicius for his part has promised further hikes in the minimum wage and public sector salaries.

But analysts say a new labour law making it easier to hire and fire employees, coupled with allegations of political corruption, have alienated voters already bitter over low wages and the labour exodus to western Europe.

Pensioner Genovaite, whose grandson is studying in Britain, told AFP that Landsbergis and his party's promise to curb the brain drain and labour exodus got her vote.

"To stop emigration, you need to create jobs that will keep specialists here, at home," she said in central Vilnius, but declined to reveal her surname.

The first round of a general election in Lithuania gave the Homeland Union a slim lead with 21.70 percent followed by the Peasants and Green Union party with 21.53 play

The first round of a general election in Lithuania gave the Homeland Union a slim lead with 21.70 percent followed by the Peasants and Green Union party with 21.53

(AFP/File)

Lithuania's economy shrank by nearly 15 percent during the 2008-9 global financial crisis but quickly recovered and is slated to expand by 2.5 percent this year.

Even so, the average wage of just over 600 euros ($670) per month after tax is one of the EU's lowest, and inequality and poverty remain comparatively high.

Neck-and-neck

Analysts tip the farmer-backed LPGU -- currently outside parliament and led by popular former national police chief Saulius Skvernelis -- as kingmakers after the vote.

Skvernelis, 46, has said his party was open to coalition talks with both the conservatives and the Social Democrats.

Three other small political parties entered parliament in round one, signalling complicated coalition talks in the days ahead.

Lithuania's non-aligned President Dalia Grybauskaite has criticised Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius making it known she favours "changes" ahead of then election play

Lithuania's non-aligned President Dalia Grybauskaite has criticised Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius making it known she favours "changes" ahead of then election

(AFP/File)

With the Homeland Union and LPGU likely to stay neck-and-neck in round two, Vilnius University analyst Mazvydas Jastramskis points to a possible impasse ahead.

"It won't be good if both parties win equal voter support. Both will want to spearhead talks" to lead the next government, he told AFP.

But he added that non-aligned President Dalia Grybauskaite could "invite certain party leaders she would like to see in the coalition to the negotiating table."

Grybauskaite has criticised Butkevicius while making it known she favours "changes".

Russia's deployment earlier this month of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave two weeks ago jangled nerves in neighbouring Lithuania.

But reassurance provided by NATO's beefed up regional presence -- a move that all major parties approve -- means that voters are more worried about their wallets than security.

Sixty-eight of the 141 seats in parliament are up for grabs Sunday, with the balance filled in round one.

A total of 2.5 million citizens are eligible to vote. Officials pegged turnout at 50.6 percent in round one.

Polls close at 1700 GMT, with an early indication of the victors expected within hours.