Centre-right ahead in Lithuania vote overshadowed by pandemic

Vilnius (AFP) –

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Lithuania's centre-right opposition came first in parliamentary elections on Sunday after a campaign overshadowed by the pandemic, opening the way for an all-female coalition at the head of the Baltic state.

The conservative Homeland Union won 49 seats in the 141-member parliament, while the ruling Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party took 32 seats, with most votes counted from the second round run-off vote.

Ex-finance minister Ingrida Simonyte, who is the conservatives' candidate for prime minister, is now expected to build a majority coalition with two liberal parties, which won 12 and 11 seats respectively.

Both of the liberal parties are led by women.

As well as mandatory masks and social distancing in polling stations, the election featured drive-in voting as part of safety measures amid record spikes in the number of infections in the EU and NATO member state.

Despite the recent surge in cases, coronavirus-related deaths are below the EU average, while the International Monetary Fund forecasts the Lithuanian economy will contract just 1.8 percent this year, the smallest blow of any eurozone country.

- 'Critical thinking' -

Simonyte has pledged to accelerate the economy's modernisation from a cheap labour model to higher-value manufacturing.

She has also condemned Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis for failing to prepare for the second wave of the pandemic.

The 45-year-old, a fan of rock music and ice hockey, is popular among young urbanites.

Her previous experience as a finance minister who dealt with the fallout of the global financial crisis was seen by voters as an asset against the pandemic.

"I believe she would deal with the situation better than current authorities, due to her values and critical thinking, she is tough but also seeks dialogue," Simona Dirse, 33, who works at a Vilnius insurance company, told AFP.

Skvernelis, who is more popular among lower-income rural voters, had pledged to continue fighting social inequality if reelected -- including a new annual "13th pension" cash bonus for the elderly.

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

"Only minor adjustments and tweaks are likely in EU and foreign policy, as there is broad and solid consensus concerning its main guidelines," Vilnius university professor Kestutis Girnius told AFP.

President Gitanas Nauseda, whose terms runs out in 2024, will continue to lead foreign and defence policy.