Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Populist party in Lithuania victory

Viktor Uspaskich's Lithuanian Labour Party is leading in the polls (AP/Mindaugas Kulbis)
Viktor Uspaskich's Lithuanian Labour Party is leading in the polls (AP/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Lithuanians exasperated with economic hardship have handed a stunning victory to a populist party led by a disgraced Russian-born millionaire, nearly complete results of Sunday's election show.

The opposition Labour Party, led by Viktor Uspaskich, once dubbed as the "pickle king" for having made his fortune selling jarred pickles, was leading with 23.4% of the vote after nearly three-quarters of precincts were counted.

The victory set the stage for a coalition with the Social Democrats, who were second with 19.4%, and Order and Justice in fourth with 9.2%.

Order and Justice is a populist party led by Rolandas Paksas, a stunt pilot who eventually became president in 2003 - only to be impeached the following year for violating the constitution and abuse of office.

All three parties promised radical policy changes, including increased wages and lower taxes, while the Social Democrats said Lithuania should postpone introducing the euro until Europe could straighten out its financial mess.

The current conservative ruling coalition, led by prime minister Andrius Kubilius, has expressed its interest in adopting the euro in 2014.

Some 12.3% of voters supported his Homeland Union, which came to power as Lithuania was sliding into one of the worst recessions in Europe. Mr Kubilius's government was forced to raise taxes and cut expenses to ward off bankruptcy, and largely succeeded given that Lithuania did not have to turn to international lenders for bailout funds.

Lithuania is nevertheless beset with high unemployment - over 13% in the second quarter - and falling living standards due in large part to higher energy costs. Tens of thousands have left the country to find jobs elsewhere in Europe, and a recent census showed that the Baltic state had lost about 1% of its population over the past two decades since splitting from the Soviet Union, and that this year the population dipped below the three million mark.

Leaders of the three opposition parties have met early to hash out the broad outlines of an agreement that could possibly lead to a new government coalition.

However, only half the seats in the 141-member parliament are determined by party lists. The other half consists of single mandates, many of which will require a run-off ballot in two weeks. Only then will a clear picture of who could form the next government emerge.

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