Lithuania opts for change in poll upset

2016-10-24 18:50
Lithuanian Peasant and Green's Union party leader Salius Skvernelis. (Mindaugas Kulbis, AP)

Lithuanian Peasant and Green's Union party leader Salius Skvernelis. (Mindaugas Kulbis, AP)

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Vilnius, Oct 24, 2016 (AFP) -A political minnow fronted by a former police chief pulled off a stunning election victory in Lithuanaia on Sunday on the back of promises to deliver much-needed economic growth.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament.

It previously had just one seat.

"Iron Lady" President Dalia Grybauskaite said Monday that the election result "confirmed that people want major changes.

"New faces replaced political old-timers in many constituencies -- this means changes on Lithuania's political map," she added.

The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats.

Grybauskaite formally invited the LPGU to "form a transparent and responsible majority" government after holding exploratory coalition talks with other party leaders.

She said it was "crucial to restore ruined confidence in the parliament and government."

The LPGU has said it is open to talks with all parties.

"In every election, new political personalities attract disillusioned voters. The LPGU knew how to attract more of them," Ramunas Vilpisauskas, director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science in Vilnius, told AFP.

"Some of their ideas are very mainstream, but others are closer to those we see in Poland," he added, pointing to the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party which has taken a controversial course of economic nationalism and legislative reforms which the European Union has warned undermine democracy.

Vilpisauskas also said he expected the LPGU would keep Lithuania firmly rooted in the EU, the eurozone and NATO.

- 'Grand coalition'? -

Popular in the countryside, the LPGU's official leader is Ramunas Karbauskis, a billionaire industrial farmer and land baron.

But Saulius Skvernelis, a former national police chief popular for clobbering corruption, ran as its "new face" for prime minister.

The 46-year-old launched his political career just two years ago when he swapped his police uniform for a suit and the office of the interior minister.

His squeaky clean image turned him into Lithuania's hottest political commodity virtually overnight.

The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration.

Karbauskis has also raised the idea of a "grand coalition" of all parties in parliament creating a technocratic government focused on economic growth and boosting incomes.

Wage growth and job creation were key election issues the country of 2.9 million people, plagued by an exodus of workers seeking higher wages abroad.

Over the last 15 years, the Baltic state's population has fallen by 600,000 people as young people seek better opportunities in western Europe.

Many have gone to Britain where concern over immigration from eastern Europe was a key factor in June's shock referendum vote to leave the bloc.

Sunday's result dealt a heavy blow to Homeland Union leader Gabrielius Landsbergis, whom analysts had tipped as the next prime minister after his party finished narrowly ahead of the LPGU in the first round of voting.

Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

Allegations of political corruption against his administration further alienated voters already bitter over low wages and the brain drain to western Europe.

Lithuania's economy shrank by nearly 15 percent during the 2008-9 global financial crisis but quickly recovered and is forecast to expand by 2.5 percent this year.

But the average wage of just over 600 euros ($670) per month after tax remains one of the lowest in the EU, and inequality and poverty remain comparatively high.

Lithuania's election commission tallied turnout at 38 percent of the 2.5 million eligible voters.

Read more on:    lithuania

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