An economist and political novice, Gitanas Nauseda, took the lead in the first round of Lithuania's presidential election on Sunday and will face Ingrida Simonyte, a conservative ex-finance minister, in a May 26 runoff set to focus on inequality and poverty in the Baltic eurozone state.
Nauseda, promising to seek the political middle-ground and build a welfare state, scored 31.07 per cent of the vote, according to near complete official results.
The 54-year-old is seeking to bridge the growing rich-poor divide in the former Soviet republic of 2.8 million people, which joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.
In all, nine candidates ran in the first round vote.
In second place, Simonyte, who is popular with wealthy, educated urban voters, garnered 28.73 per cent of the vote while resonating with the rural poor, Skvernelis's populist approach took 21.24 per cent support, with 99.27 per cent of ballots counted, official results showed.
Simonyte, 44, a technocrat who also warns against deepening inequality and the rural-urban divide, has vowed to reduce it by boosting growth further.
Socially liberal, Simonyte supports same-sex partnerships which still stir controversy in the predominantly Catholic country.
Simonyte said she would resist "populism" during her second-round campaign and seek support from political forces "with consistent views that do not try to be on the right with one leg and the left with the other".
Lithuanian presidents steer defence and foreign policy, attending EU and NATO summits, but must consult with the government and the prime minister on appointing the most senior officials.
Popular incumbent President Dalia Grybauskaite, an independent in her second consecutive term, must step down due to term limits.
Both Nauseda and Simonyte are strong supporters of EU and NATO membership as bulwarks against neighbouring Russia, especially since Moscow's 2014 military intervention in Ukraine.
Analyst Vilpisauskas said that both Nauseda and Simonyte are very likely to opt for continuity in foreign and defence policy.
"With Nauseda, there can be some tactical changes when it comes to communication with neighbours but the strategic line is unlikely to change."
Although Lithuanian presidents do not directly craft economic policy, bread and butter issues and tackling corruption dominated the campaign.
The global financial crisis triggered a deep recession 10 years ago and austerity measures imposed to prevent further crisis took a high toll, especially on low income earners.
Despite solid economic growth, a recent EU report noted that almost 30 per cent of Lithuanians "are at risk of poverty or social exclusion" and that this risk is "nearly double" in rural areas.
Robust annual wage growth of around 10 per cent has raised the average gross monthly salary to 970 euros but poverty and income inequality remain among the highest in the EU, largely due to weak progressive taxation.
Unemployment stood at 6.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2019 and the economy is forecast to grow by 2.7 per cent this year, well above an average of 1.1 per cent in the 19-member eurozone.
"We need to improve living conditions because many people are forced to work abroad," the pensioner told AFP after voting in Vilnius on Sunday.
Voter turnout tallied at 54.96 per cent at the close of voting on Sunday, according to the Central Elections Commission.
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