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.

A local resident cast their ballots at a polling station during the advance presidential elections in Vilnius, Lithuania, Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Lithuanians will head to the polls on Sunday, May 12, in a first round of presidential election.
A local resident cast their ballots at a polling station during the advance presidential elections in Vilnius, Lithuania, Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Lithuanians will head to the polls on Sunday, May 12, in a first round of presidential election. (Mindaugas Kulbis / AP)

Lithuanians were choosing a new president on Sunday in a close race dominated by concerns over poverty and income inequality in the Baltic state that boasts some of the eurozone's strongest growth.

Nine candidates are vying to replace the two-term independent incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite, nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her strong resolve and who has been tipped as a contender to be the next president of the European Council.

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 focused primarily on bread and butter issues.

Simonyte, who scored 22.3 percent in a pre-election poll, is popular with wealthy, educated urban voters while Skvernelis' populist approach resonates with the rural poor. 

The Vilmorus pollsters gave him 16.7 percent backing, while Nauseda scored 21.9 percent.

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

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

Lithuanian presidential candidate Ingrida Simonyte speaks during her campaign in Telsiai, Lithuania May 4, 2019.
Lithuanian presidential candidate Ingrida Simonyte speaks during her campaign in Telsiai, Lithuania May 4, 2019. (Ints Kalnins / Reuters)

Bread and Butter

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 Vilnius Policy Analysis Institute told AFP.

It is struggling with a sharp decline in population owing to mass emigration to Western Europe by people seeking a better life.

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.

Voting on Sunday in Vilnius Simonyte insisted presidents need to listen to "different opinions, seek consensus and properly represent Lithuania 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.

"We could do more to align with Western states," the 21-year-old Vilnius sales clerk told AFP.

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.

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

People walk past a campaign billboard bearing a portrait of presidential candidate, Gitanas Nauseda, and reading
People walk past a campaign billboard bearing a portrait of presidential candidate, Gitanas Nauseda, and reading "Vote for the independent president" on May 11, 2019, in Vilnius. (Petras Malukas / AFP)

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 running as an independent, he has fans among voters seeking an impartial president above political feuding.

He insists "there are no backseat drivers" steering him and that his independence means he can "balance different interests" to seek consensus. 

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." 

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

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

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

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

People walk past an election campaign placard of a Lithuanian presidential candidate Saulius Skvernelis in Vilnius, Lithuania May 9, 2019.
People walk past an election campaign placard of a Lithuanian presidential candidate Saulius Skvernelis in Vilnius, Lithuania May 9, 2019. (Ints Kalnins / Reuters)

Skvernelis, a straight-shooting former police chief, is courting disgruntled Lithuanians living in poorer rural areas. 

The sometimes impetuous 48-year-old who labelled his rivals "elitist", has vowed to fight corruption and continue generous spending "to reduce social exclusion and support families."

Made PM by the governing Farmers and Green Union after the 2016 general elections, Skvernelis hinted he may quit office if he fails to enter round two. 

"During his term, my pension increased by 100 euros," supporter Valentina Isacenko, 76, told AFP at a Skvernelis rally in the eastern town of Sirvintos. The average pension stands at 360 euros per month. 

Grybauskaite era

Known for strong resolve during her two consecutive terms, outgoing President Grybauskaite is mentioned as a contender for the next president of the European Council. 

Lithuanian presidents are in charge of foreign policy and hold a seat at EU summits. They also appoint ministers, judges, the military chief and the head of the central bank, but must often seek approval from parliament or the prime minister.

EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who is a social democrat, and nationalist philosopher Arvydas Juozaitis could also finish among the top five, recent opinion polls suggest.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies