Coalition talks expected as Lithuanians vote in national election

Coalition talks expected as Lithuanians vote in national election

Voters in Lithuania have cast ballots in the first round of a parliamentary election in which the governing four-party coalition is facing a stiff challenge from the opposition.

After polls had closed at 17:00 GMT on Sunday, Lithuania’s Central Electoral Commission said initial voter turnout stood at 47.16 percent.

Results were expected in the early hours of Monday, but the commission said there might be delays in counting because of early voting by citizens and strict coronavirus measures.

Under Lithuania’s hybrid election system, half of the 141-member parliament will be elected on Sunday in a proportional vote. The remaining legislators are elected in constituencies, with a runoff vote for the top two candidates in each of them scheduled on October 25.

The centrist Farmers and Greens party, an agrarian grouping that leads Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis’s governing coalition, was neck-and-neck in pre-election opinion polls with the centre-right Homeland Union, which has roots in the 1980s anti-Soviet independence movement.

With support roughly 15 percent for both, and 15 other parties on the ballot, another coalition is inevitable but its makeup uncertain.

A recent surge in COVID-19 cases, soaring virus-related unemployment and economic challenges are the major issues that have sparked criticism of the current coalition government.

The election is seen as a vote of confidence on Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis’ handling of the coronavirus crisis [Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo]President Gitanas Nauseda voted at a polling station in the capital, Vilnius, and told reporters he hoped for better mutual understanding and cooperation with the new parliament, comprised of 141 legislators.

“I wish the next five or several years to be splendid for Lithuania. We have all the opportunities for that,” said Nauseda, who assumed the head of state’s post in this European Union and NATO member last year.

He said what the country needed following the election was “a clear vision and strategy”.

COVID-19 backdrop

Many Lithuanians complain the government did not do enough to help companies during the nation’s coronavirus lockdown, as the unemployment rate jumped from 9 percent in February to more than 14 percent in October. Others say the strict health regulations focused on fighting COVID-19 left thousands of other patients without proper access to health services.

Marius Sulga, a 44-year-old teacher from Lithuania’s second-largest city, Kaunas, said he voted for one of the opposition parties.

“I’m tired with all of these regulations, restrictions and limitations that came with this cabinet long before the pandemic period,” said Sulga. “It is just not the kind of Lithuania that we dreamed about when we broke away from (the Soviet) occupation decades ago.“

Supporters of the governing coalition say the country has suffered relatively lightly in the pandemic. So far, Lithuania has seen 5,963 confirmed coronavirus cases and just more than 100 deaths.“They have done a tremendous job in saving the country from this virus – just look at those other poor countries in the EU. Lithuania has managed to avoid all of that suffering,” Marija Kazlauskiene, a 75-year-old retiree, said after casting her ballot in central Vilnius.

Lithuania has kept strong democratic traditions since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. It has also played a major role as the protests in neighbouring Belarus unfold against longtime ruler Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania has granted shelter to Belarusian opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled her country after challenging Lukashenko in an August 9 presidential vote. Officials said Lukashenko won a sixth term in office, but opposition members say the election was riddled with fraud, an accusation the president denies.