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Virus, inequality top agenda as Lithuania votes

Lithuanians can vote at drive-through polling stations to limit the spread of the coronavirus
Lithuanians can vote at drive-through polling stations to limit the spread of the coronavirus PETRAS MALUKAS AFP/File
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Vilnius (AFP)

Lithuanians vote Sunday in the first round of a general election overshadowed by a record spike in coronavirus cases, with the ruling centre-left coalition defending its handling of the pandemic in a tight race with opposition conservatives.

The rivals are also focused on bridging the economic and educational gulf between rural and urban residents in the Baltic eurozone state of 2.8 million people.

All major parties share a pro-EU and NATO platform, and back Vilnius's drive to rally support within the EU for neighbouring Belarus's democratic opposition after a disputed presidential election.

Opinion polls show a tight race, with Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis' centre-left Farmers and Greens Union and the conservative Homeland Union–Lithuanian Christian Democrats both garnering around 15 percent.

If reelected, Skvernelis, who is more popular among lower-income rural voters, promises to set up state-owned pharmacies nationwide and introduce an annual "13th pension" cash bonus for the elderly.

More popular among urbanites, his conservative rival ex-finance minister Ingrida Simonyte has slammed Skvernelis -- a former national chief of police -- as running a chaotic and populist administration.

Drive-in voting has been made available for the first time as part of pandemic safety measures. Masks and social distancing are mandatory in polling stations.

Despite the recent record surge in cases, Lithuania's coronavirus related-deaths are well below the EU average while finance ministry forecasts suggest the economy will contract just 1.5 percent this year, among the best outlooks in the eurozone.

80-year-old Vilnius voter Emilija Kostiukevic told AFP she wanted Skvernelis' party "to continue working" because her pension grew significantly over its four-year term.

But 27-year-old Vilnius architect Zilvinas Klivickas said he was impressed by new conservative candidates and their "serious" approach to education reform.

Phenomenal annual wage growth in recent years -- at almost 10 percent per annum prior to the pandemic -- has raised the average monthly salary to 1,400 euros ($1,656) before taxes.

But poverty and income inequality remain among the highest in the EU, largely due to weak progressive taxation, although the EU said there was "some progress" in recent years.

At least five of the 17 parties on the ballot are expected to enter parliament, signalling complicated coalition talks.

The first round of the election on Sunday will fill around half the seats in the 141-member parliament using the proportional representation voting system.

The final run-off rounds in single-member constituencies are due on October 25.

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