Lithuania opposition eyes power in run-off election
Lithuanians fed up with low wages and a labor exodus from their Baltic eurozone state began voting yesterday in a run-off election expected to dislodge the leftist government. The first round of the poll, held on October 9, gave the conservative Homeland Union the slimmest of leads with 21.70 percent of the vote (22 seats). The centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party (LPGU) won 21.53 percent (21 seats).
The ruling leftists finished third with just 14.42 percent (10 seats), a huge blow for Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius’s Social Democrats. Sixtyeight of the 141 seats in parliament are up for grabs yesterday. Three small political parties are also in the race, signaling complicated coalition talks in the days ahead. Candidates have focused on wage growth and job creation in the country of 2.9 million people, which has been 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
Tipped as the next prime minister, Homeland Union leader 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. He has rallied support among disillusioned young voters like Jonas, a biochemistry student in Vilnius.
“I’d like a coalition led by the conservative Homeland Union... The Social Democrats blew their chance over the last four years,” he told AFP, declining to reveal his surname. Butkevicius promised further hikes in the minimum wage and public sector salaries. But analysts say a new labor 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 labor exodus to western Europe.
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.
Analysts also tip the farmer-backed LPGU-currently outside parliament and led by popular former national police chief Saulius Skvernelis-as key players after the vote. Skvernelis, 46, has said his party was open to coalition talks with both the conservatives and the Social Democrats. With the Homeland Union and LPGU likely to stay neckand-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 criticized Butkevicius while making it known she favors “changes”.
Russia’s deployment earlier this month of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave two weeks ago jangled nerves in neighboring 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. A total of 2.5 million citizens are eligible to vote. Officials pegged turnout at 50.6 percent in round one. Polls opened at 0400 GMT and close at 1700 GMT, with an early indication of the victors expected within hours. — AFP