Centre-right ahead in Lithuania vote overshadowed by pandemic

·3-min read

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 50 seats in the 141-member parliament, while the ruling Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party took 32 seats, with most votes counted.

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 10 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 following record spikes in the number of novel coronavirus infections in the EU and NATO member state.

During the campaign, Simonyte criticised Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis's government for its handling of the pandemic and she said she will seek more expert advice.

"We need to change the crisis management model because we lack transparency and clarity about who gives advice to the government and who has the final word.

"We hear from the medics and scientists that they are not listened to," she told reporters late Sunday.

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.

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.

The new cabinet is expected to be sworn in in December.

- 'Voters became tired' -

The results highlighted the political divide between urban and rural populations, as social inequality remains a sore point to many Lithuanians.

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

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

Skvernelis, who is more popular among lower-income rural voters, had pledged to continue fighting social inequality if reelected.

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.

"Voters became tired of the ruling coalition and wanted a change in a political landscape," Vilnius university professor Ramunas Vilpisauskas told AFP.

He said the right-wing coalition may be more active in seeking more foreign investments but he "saw no reason for strategic changes in foreign policy".

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