Lithuanians began voting on Sunday for a new president in a tight race dominated by concerns over income inequality and poverty in the Baltic state boasting some of the eurozone\’s strongest growth.
Nine candidates are vying to replace two-term independent incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite, but surveys suggest only three stand a chance of making it to an expected May 26 run-off that would coincide with European Parliament elections.
Centre-left Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, conservative ex-finance minister Ingrida Simonyte and independent economist Gitanas Nauseda lead the pack.
The main centre-right contender, Simonyte is popular with wealthy, educated urban voters while Skvernelis\’ populist approach resonates with the rural poor.
Nauseda seeks to appeal across the rich-poor divide in the former Soviet republic of 2.8 million people.
It is struggling with a sharp decline in population owing to mass emigration to Western Europe by people seeking a better life.
Around a quarter of Lithuanians live below the poverty line, which is about 300 euros ($340) per month.
"Citizens are thirsty for social justice and seek a candidate who can bridge existing social polarisation," Donatas Puslys from the Vilnius Policy Analysis Institute told AFP.
All candidates support EU and NATO membership as bulwarks against neighbouring Russia, especially since its 2014 military intervention in Ukraine.
Unlike other eastern European Union members, Vilnius has avoided confrontation with the EU.
– Rich-poor gap –
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 eurozone.
Brussels has urged Vilnius 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.
At a rally in the capital this week she criticised populists who "propose fast and simple but misleading solutions".
Socially liberal, Simonyte supports same-sex partnerships.
Vilnius voter Giedre Stankute told AFP Saturday she wants "big changes because Lithuania is too conservative now".
– Generous spending –
A former police chief named prime minister after the Farmers and Green Union won general elections in 2016, Skvernelis is courting the disgruntled rural poor.
The occasionally impetuous 48-year-old has labelled his rivals "elitist" and vowed to fight corruption and continue generous spending "to reduce social exclusion and support families".
"During his term, my pension increased by 100 euros," supporter Valentina Isacenko, 76, told AFP at a rally in the eastern town of Sirvintos. Average pensions are 360 euros per month.
– Polarisation –
Known for financial acumen, independent candidate Nauseda vows to build a "welfare state" and urges greater social dialogue.
A 54-year-old former banking adviser, he has fans among voters seeking an impartial president who remains above political feuds.
Nauseda said he felt a "huge responsibility for there to be less polarisation… and for Lithuania to regain dignity and mutual respect" after casting his ballot Friday in early voting.
Vilnius University analyst Kestutis Girnius described Nauseda as "moderate and measured on almost all issues, perhaps too finely so, leading to doubts about what he really believes".
But Ricardas Makuska, a Vilnius chemistry professor, told AFP that Nauseda "invites different social groups to seek common ground", before adding that "this is needed".
– Grybauskaite era –
Nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her strong resolve, outgoing President Grybauskaite is tipped as a contender for the next president of the European Council.
Lithuanian presidents attend EU summits, steer foreign policy, appoint ministers, judges, the military chief and the head of the central bank, often in consultation with parliament or the prime minister.
Polling stations are open from 7:00 am-8:00 pm local time (0400-1700 GMT). No exit polls are expected.