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Lithuanians elect new president amid inequality woes

AFP  |  Vilnius 

Lithuanians voted for a new on Sunday with concerns over income inequality and poverty dominating round one of a tight race in the Baltic state.

Voter turnout tallied at 56.45 percent at the close of voting on Sunday, according to the Central Elections Commission, which also said it expected to publish partial official results in the night or early on Monday.

Nine candidates are vying to succeed two-term independent incumbent The nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her strong resolve has been tipped as a contender to be the next of the

But pre-election surveys suggest only three stand a chance of making it to an expected May 26 run-off that would coincide with European

Saulius Skvernelis, conservative ex-minister and independent lead the pack, and each has focused primarily on bread and butter issues.

Simonyte is popular with wealthy, educated urban voters while Skvernelis' populist approach resonates with the rural poor.

Nauseda, an economist, seeks to bridge the rich-poor divide in the former Soviet republic of 2.8 million people, which joined the EU and NATO in 2004.

The country is struggling with a sharp decline in population owing to mass emigration to by people seeking a better life.

A recent EU report noted that almost 30 percent of Lithuanians "are at risk of poverty or social exclusion" and that this risk is "nearly double" in rural areas.

"Citizens are thirsty for social justice and seek a candidate who can bridge existing social polarisation," Donatas Puslys from the Policy Analysis Institute told AFP.

All candidates support EU and NATO membership as bulwarks against neighbouring Russia, especially since its 2014 military intervention in

Lithuanian presidents steer foreign policy, attending EU summits, but must consult with the government and the on appointing the most senior officials.

Robust annual wage growth of around 10 percent 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 percent in the first quarter of 2019, and the economy is forecast to grow by 2.7 percent this year, well above an average of 1.1 percent 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.

A technocrat who warns against deepening inequality and the rural-urban divide, Simonyte has vowed to reduce it by boosting growth further.

Voting on Sunday in Simonyte insisted presidents needed to listen to "different opinions, seek consensus and properly represent abroad".

Socially liberal, Simonyte supports same-sex partnerships.

Seeking stronger anti-corruption measures and faster income growth, Raminta Tubinyte said that Simonyte got her vote.

A former named after the won in 2016, Skvernelis is courting the disgruntled rural poor.

Skvernelis, 48, has labelled his rivals "elitist" and vowed to fight corruption and continue generous spending "to reduce social exclusion and support families".

Voting in Vilnius on Sunday, Skvernelis called the election an "assessment" of his work as PM but refused to speculate if he would step down should he fail to enter round two.

Known for financial acumen, Nauseda vows to build a "welfare state" and urges greater social dialogue.

A 54-year-old former adviser, he has fans among voters seeking an impartial who remains above political feuds.

Nauseda said he felt a "huge responsibility for there to be less polarisation", after casting his ballot Friday in early voting.

described Nauseda as "moderate and measured on almost all issues, perhaps too finely so, leading to doubts about what he really believes".

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

"We need to improve living conditions because many people are forced to work abroad," the pensioner told AFP after voting in Vilnius.

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

First Published: Mon, May 13 2019. 00:01 IST