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Lithuania presidential runoff pits novice against ex-minister as PM quits

AFP  |  Vilnius 

An and political novice, Gitanas Nauseda, took the lead in the first round of Lithuania's on Sunday and will face Simonyte, a conservative ex-minister, in a May 26 runoff set to focus on inequality and poverty in the Baltic state.

vowed to quit in July after he was eliminated from the runoff.

Conceding that "the failure to get into the second round is an assessment of me as a politician", Skvernelis told that he would tender his resignation.

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.

"I want to thank all the people who took to their hearts our message that we want a welfare state in and we want more political peace," Nauseda told reporters in

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 and NATO in 2004.

"Nauseda has a greater chance to attract votes that went to other candidates, especially from the left," University told AFP.

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 on appointing the most senior officials.

Popular incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite, an independent in her second consecutive term, must step down due to term limits.

The nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her strong resolve has been tipped as a contender to be the next of the

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

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.

is struggling with a sharp decline in population owing to mass emigration to Western by people seeking better opportunities.

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

has urged to use solid growth fuelled mostly by consumption to broaden its tax base and spend more on social policies.

Nauseda voter Feliksas Markevicius said he wanted the new to help emigrants to return to home to

"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

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, May 13 2019. 06:10 IST