Rivals focus on inequality in tight Lithuania runoff

Vilnius (AFP) –


Lithuanians began voting Sunday in a tight presidential runoff between two centre-right rivals in a race marked by low populist sentiment and concerns over inequality in the Baltic eurozone state.

Conservative-backed independent Ingrida Simonyte -- an ex-finance minister who oversaw biting austerity cuts during the financial crisis -- narrowly won round one on May 12 against fellow economist Gitanas Nauseda, also running as an independent in his first bid for public office.

Simonyte, scored 31.13 percent ahead of 30.95 percent for Nauseda, who has since won backing from the governing Farmers and Greens Union after its candidate, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, came third in round one with 19.72 percent support.

No opinion polls were issued before Sunday's vote coinciding with European parliament elections, but analysts expect Nauseda to prevail due to his independence, broad political appeal and personality.

"I like both candidates but I'm voting for Nauseda," Vilma Abromaviciene, a 63-year-old Vilnius financial sector employee told AFP.

"He's independent from political parties, and will not be pressured or controlled by them. His goal is to unite everyone."

Experts noted that by choosing two pro-EU, centre-right candidates, Lithuanians who see the European Union as a source of prosperity and security have bucked growing eurosceptic and populist sentiment in the bloc.

The victor will replace popular incumbent President Dalia Grybauskaite, a 63-year-old independent who cannot run for a third consecutive term.

Dubbed the "Iron Lady" for her hard line on Russia, Grybauskaite is tipped as a possible next European Council president.

- Rich-poor divide -

Although Lithuanian presidents do not directly craft economic policy, bread and butter issues have dominated the race.

Lithuania is struggling with a sharp population decline owing to mass emigration to Western Europe by people seeking better opportunities.

The rivals have pledged to bridge the rich-poor divide in the nation of 2.8 million where, despite solid economic growth, almost 30 percent are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, notably in rural areas.

Growth is forecast at 2.7 percent this year, above an average of 1.1 percent in the 19-member eurozone, but income inequality is still among the highest in the EU.

Both candidates are trusted economists with similar ideas about fighting poverty by distributing the fruits of growth more equally, although Simonyte has shied away from Nauseda's promises of "creating a welfare state".

Insisting that he is "truly independent", the 55-year-old former bank advisor has vowed to forge a "Lithuania that cares about everybody, not just the privileged".

Decades of TV appearances as an economic expert have made the married father of two a household name reputed for intelligence, calm and moderation.

Critics, however, argue his platform is too vague and see his political inexperience and business links as liabilities.

- Austerity -

Simonyte is known for her dynamic and direct style. The single 44-year-old swept the capital Vilnius in round one but trailed Nauseda in the regional vote.

She has warned against "simple misleading answers" to socio-economic challenges and emphasised her experience "taking decisions at critical moments".

As finance minister during the global financial crisis, she saw the economy shrink by nearly 15 percent, a decline that took a high toll on low-income earners.

This background appears to be a key electoral handicap among voters who remember the painful austerity cuts Simonyte made to pensions and public sector salaries to stem the recession.

Socially liberal, she supports same-sex partnerships which stir controversy in the predominantly Catholic country.

Jovita Kumstyte, a 45-year-old pharmaceutical company employee in Vilnius, said she chose Simonyte because of her "political experience, liberal views and women's solidarity."

- Firm on Russia -

Lithuanian presidents steer defence and foreign policy, attending EU and NATO summits, but while they have veto powers they must agree senior appointments with the prime minister.

Both candidates firmly support EU and NATO membership as bulwarks against neighbouring Russia, especially since Moscow's 2014 military intervention in Ukraine.

Political expert Linas Kojala says the next president will face issues including Lithuania's position on EU-US disagreements, security concerns tied to Chinese investment and whether to forge closer ties with neighbouring Belarus.