Lithuania's centre-right opposition eyes power in run-off

Vilnius (AFP) –


Lithuania's centre-right opposition appeared on track to oust the centre-left government in a run-off general election going ahead Sunday despite a record spike in coronavirus cases.

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

As well as mandatory masks and social distancing in polling stations, drive-in voting has been made available as part of pandemic safety measures.

Despite the recent record 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 best result in the eurozone.

The opposition conservatives took 25 percent of the vote in the first round of voting on October 11. Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis's Farmers and Greens Union finished second with 17 percent.

Four other political parties entered parliament in the first round two weeks ago, which means there will likely be coalition talks after Sunday's run-off.

Political analyst Mazvydas Jastramskis told AFP the conservatives were expected to win, then forge a working majority in coalition with the liberals.

Tipped as the next prime minister, conservative ex-finance minister Ingrida Simonyte pledged to accelerate the economy's modernisation from a cheap labour model to higher-value manufacturing.

- Second wave -

She has also condemned Skvernelis for failing to prepare for the second wave of the pandemic, with daily cases growing rapidly in recent weeks.

Popular among young urbanites, the 45-year-old is widely expected to seek a coalition with two liberal parties, both led by women.

For some voters, Simonyte's previous experience as a finance minister who dealt with the fallout of the global financial crisis would help her cope with 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.

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

Skvernelis said the Social Democrats and populist Labour party as potential coalition partners for his centre-left Farmers and Greens party. But the former national police chief conceded that they might fall short of a majority.

"I like Skvernelis. He promises to do good things to people," Vilnius pensioner Vladimiras Vaitnikovas told AFP.

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 will continue to lead foreign and defence policy, he added.