Lithuanians Vote in Tight Race

Lithuanians Vote in Tight Race

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) -- Lithuanians voted Sunday in a runoff election that is expected to bring the center-right opposition to power and end the rule of the current Social Democrat-coalition, with the incumbents taking the heat for a sluggish economy and a sharp rise in prices following the adoption of the euro currency.

At stake are 68 seats in the 141-member Parliament, with all the other seats already assigned after a first round of balloting on Oct. 9. Sunday's runoff is expected to be close, which could complicate government formation talks.

In the first round, the ruling Social Democrats came in third with 13 seats, behind both a conservative group, the Homeland Union-Christian Democrats, which won 20 seats, and the agrarian Peasants and Green Union with 19 seats.

"I voted for a conservative candidate today because the current Cabinet is a bunch of sleepy bureaucrats who have no idea how to get this country moving forward," said Vytas Kazlauskas, a 30-year-old teacher in Vilnius. "We all look at Estonia with envy; they had real reforms while we just keep on talking about them."

Casting his ballot at a high school in the Lithuanian capital, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius acknowledged that it is likely his party could end up in the opposition, which would be "a kind of defeat."

"We should have focused more on the campaign, but we were working instead and hoped people would notice the progress," Butkevicius told reporters.

He was referring to recent policies which the Social Democrats launched after gradually losing support since the last election in 2012, including a controversial labor law that favored employers and measures that focused heavily on transforming the energy sector, which led to a sharp drop in consumers' utility bills.

Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Estonia, regained independence after splitting from the Soviet Union in 1990 and has since lost more than a quarter of its pre-independence population of 3.7 million as many have sought work elsewhere in Europe. It is a member of the 28-nation European Union and was hit hard by the global economic recession in 2009-2010. At the beginning of last year it adopted the EU's common currency, the euro, which has sharply increased prices while wages and pensions remain among the lowest in the bloc.

Both government and opposition parties have promised to raise living standards in the country of 2.9 million.

The conservatives, who campaigned heavily for change, are led by Gabrielius Landsbergis, who at 34 is trying to become Europe's youngest prime minister. He is the grandson of Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania's first head of state after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and considered by many as a national hero.

The leader of the agrarian party is a 46-year-old farmer millionaire, Ramunas Karbauskis, who has sponsored village-themed TV shows, musical festivals and built up his popularity by promoting ethnic Lithuanian culture.

The two men have exchanged harsh rhetoric since the first round, signaling that coalition talks between their parties — if not totally out of the question — would be long and complicated.

(KA)