Opposition victory expected in Lithuanian election


LITHUANIANS WEARY of austerity are expected to oust their centre-right government in elections that start tomorrow, amid high unemployment and rising migration from the Baltic state.

The second round of voting, in a fortnight, is likely to set the seal on victory for the opposition Social Democrats, who have capitalised on growing disenchantment with prime minister Andrius Kubilius’s tough programme of social service cuts, wage reductions and tax rises.

Polls place Mr Kubilius’s Homeland Union in third place with 12 per cent of support, behind the Social Democrats with 24 per cent and the Labour Party of Russian-born businessman Viktor Uspaskich on 18 per cent.

Mr Kubilius’s cost-cutting measures – like those implemented in neighbouring Latvia and Estonia – have been praised internationally for getting the economy back on track for recovery.

But after the economy shrank by some 15 per cent in 2009, and unemployment spiralled to 18 per cent before falling back to its current 13 per cent, tens of thousands of Lithuanians went abroad to find work, with many heading for Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The exodus has driven Lithuania’s population below the psychological threshold of three million – having stood at 3.7 million in 1990 – and raised fears over whether that shrinking, ageing population can power the country’s economic comeback.

Lithuania’s economy is expected to grow by 2.5 per cent this year and 3 per cent in 2013, but the crisis and recession have intensified financial inequality in the country and left a larger proportion of the population at risk of poverty in Lithuania than in any other member state.

Victory for the Social Democrats of Algirdas Butkevicius would probably also see a change to Lithuania’s plans to join the euro, with the former finance minister favouring a 2015 date over the 2014 target named by Mr Kubilius.

“GDP growth is slowing down, income levels remain low, and 25 per cent of the population receives the minimum wage. I believe Lithuania could wait until the euro zone as a club re-emerges in better shape,” Mr Butkevicius said.

He also intends to attract foreign investors to help overhaul Lithuania’s heating system and to renovate thousands of homes to make them more energy-efficient, as part of a plan to reduce the country’s energy bill and dependency on neighbouring Russia.

Voters will also take part tomorrow in a non-binding referendum on plans to build a new nuclear power station in Lithuania.