Lithuania opposition set to oust leftists after polls

Update: October, 10/2016 - 11:15

VILNIUS - Lithuania’s opposition looked set to beat the ruling Social Democrats in round one of a general election, results showed on Monday, suggesting a possible change in government for the Baltic eurozone state.

With results in from 90 per cent of polling stations, the national elections commission said the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party (LPGU) garnered 22.3 per cent of the vote, while the Homeland Union conservatives took 20.6 per cent.

Social Democrats finished third with 14.7 per cent, in a huge blow for Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius ahead of the decisive October 23 run-off vote.

"It was a protest vote against the governing leftist coalition," said Ramunas Vilpisauskas, director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science in Vilnius.

He said a new labour law which makes it easier to hire and fire employees and corruption allegations had alienated voters already angered by low wages and mass emigration to the Western Europe.

Three other parties are expected to enter parliament, signalling complicated coalition talks.

Vilnius university analyst Mazvydas Jastramskis said on Sunday he expected those talks to get into full swing between the two rounds, but no coalition deal was likely to be sealed before the final vote.

Analysts have tipped the farmer-backed LPGU -- currently outside parliament and led by popular former national police chief Saulius Skvernelis – as potential kingmaker in coalition talks.

"I think we will be able to talk with both of them (conservatives, social democrats). This is only half a step into parliamentary elections," Skvernelis told reporters upon seeing the results.

Saying "it looks like change is coming" Homeland Union leader Gabrielius Landsbergis, 34, noted he is keen to forge a coalition with the LPGU.

"The core of the coalition can be either LPGU with Social Democrats, or LPGU with conservatives and liberals. Today, I would bet on the latter," analyst Jastramskis said.

’Reduce emigration’

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

Since Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, nearly half the estimated 370,000 people who have left went to Britain, where concern over eastern European immigration was seen as a key factor in the Brexit vote to leave the bloc.

Butkevicius, 57, had promised further hikes in the minimum wage and public sector salaries, but admitted "it might be that people want a new party, new faces," as the unfavourable results rolled in early on Monday.

President Dalia Grybauskaite said earlier she voted "for changes" in an apparent swipe at him.

Presenting himself as the face of change, Landsbergis has vowed to fight emigration and poverty by creating jobs, reforming education, boosting exports and foreign investment.

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 per cent 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.

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 said.

Seventy members of Lithuania’s 141-seat parliament are elected by

proportional representation from party lists in the first round. The remaining 71 will chosen in single-member constituency races in two weeks.

Initial results showed the LGPU claimed 19 seats compared to 17 won by the conservatives and 13 for Social Democrats.

The election commission earlier tallied turnout at 50 percent of the 2.5 million eligible voters. - AFP