Nine candidates are vying to succeed Dalia Grybauskaite who has served two terms as Lithuanian president. -AFP
Lithuanians were choosing a new president on Sunday in a close race dominated by concerns over poverty and income inequality in the Baltic state that boasts some of the eurozone's strongest growth.Nine candidates are vying to fill the shoes of two-term independent incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite, nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her strong resolve and who has been tipped as a contender to be the next president of the European Council.
But surveys suggest only three stand a chance of making it to an expected May 26 run-off that would coincide with European Parliament elections. Centre-left Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, conservative ex-finance minister Ingrida Simonyte and independent economist Gitanas Nauseda lead the pack focused primarily on bread and butter issues.
Simonyte, who scored 22.3 percent in a pre-election poll, is popular with wealthy, educated urban voters while Skvernelis' populist approach resonates with the rural poor.
The Vilmorus pollsters gave him 16.7 percent backing, while Nauseda scored 21.9 percent. Nauseda, an economist, seeks to bridge the rich-poor divide in the former Soviet republic of 2.8 million people that joined the EU and NATO in 2004. It is struggling with a sharp decline in population owing to mass emigration to Western Europe by people seeking a better life.
A recent EU report noted that almost 30 percent of Lithuanians "are at risk of poverty or social exclusion" and that this risk is "nearly double" in rural areas. "Citizens are thirsty for social justice and seek a candidate who can bridge existing social polarisation," Donatas Puslys from the Vilnius Policy Analysis Institute told AFP.
All candidates support EU and NATO membership as bulwarks against neighbouring Russia, especially since its 2014 military intervention in Ukraine. Robust annual wage growth of around 10 percent has raised the average gross monthly salary to 970 euros but poverty and income inequality remain among the highest in the EU, largely due to weak progressive taxation.
Unemployment stood at 6.5 percent in the first quarter of 2019, and the economy is forecast to grow by 2.7 percent this year, well above an average of 1.1 percent in the 19-member eurozone.
Brussels has urged Vilnius to use solid growth fuelled mostly by consumption to broaden its tax base and spend more on social policies. A technocrat who warns against deepening inequality and the rural-urban divide, Simonyte has vowed to reduce it by boosting growth further.
Voting on Sunday in Vilnius Simonyte insisted presidents need to listen to "different opinions, seek consensus and properly represent Lithuania abroad." Socially liberal, Simonyte supports same-sex partnerships.
Seeking stronger anti-corruption measures and faster income growth, Raminta Tubinyte said that Simonyte got her vote. "We could do more to align with Western states," the 21-year-old Vilnius sales clerk told AFP. A former police chief named prime minister after the Farmers and Green Union won general elections in 2016, Skvernelis is courting the disgruntled rural poor.
Skvernelis, 48, has labelled his rivals "elitist" and vowed to fight corruption and continue generous spending "to reduce social exclusion and support families". Known for financial acumen, independent candidate Nauseda vows to build a "welfare state" and urges greater social dialogue.
A 54-year-old former banking adviser, he has fans among voters seeking an impartial president who remains above political feuds. Nauseda said he felt a "huge responsibility for there to be less polarisation", after casting his ballot Friday in early voting.
Vilnius University analyst Kestutis Girnius described Nauseda as "moderate and measured on almost all issues, perhaps too finely so, leading to doubts about what he really believes".
Nauseda voter Feliksas Markevicius he wanted the new president to help emigrants return to Lithuania. "We need to improve living conditions because many people are forced to work abroad," the pensioner told AFP after voting in Vilnius.
Lithuanian presidents steer foreign policy, attending EU summits, but must consult with the government and the prime minister on appointing most senior officials. Voting ends at 8:00 pm local time (1700 GMT).
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