Lithuania presidential election: Voters go to the ballot box amid Russia fears

Incumbent Gitanas Nauseda, 60, is the heavy favourite to win another five-year term

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Lithuanian's took to the ballot box on Sunday to vote in round two of the presidential election, as the Baltic nation prioritises defence and security amid fears over neighbouring Russia.

Incumbent former banker Gitanas Nauseda, 60, is the heavy favourite to win another five-year term, saying he expects to receive 75 per cent of votes.

No new opinion polls have been published since the first round, when Mr Nauseda won 44 per cent of the ballot and Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte 20 per cent.

Both candidates agree that the Nato and EU member of 2.8 million people should boost defence spending to counter the perceived threat, and to that end the government recently proposed a tax increase.

Ms Simonyte, the 49-year-old candidate of the ruling conservatives, is running for president again after losing to Mr Nauseda in the last presidential ballot.

Mr Nauseda took to social media on Sunday to urge voters to wait for the results in the gardens of the presidential palace, which led the electoral commission to warn of a possible violation of the rule of silence during election time.

The president's spokesman Ridas Jasiulionis said Mr Nauseda would not remove his Facebook post as it did not constitute campaigning.

The Lithuanian president steers defence and foreign policy, attending EU and Nato summits, but must consult with the government and parliament on appointing the most senior officials.

While the candidates agree on defence, they share diverging views on Lithuania's relations with China, which have been strained for years over Taiwan.

Olga Sokolovska, a kindergarten worker, said she had voted for Mr Nauseda.

“I like his ideas, his approach to the family and the way he deals with the public,” the 34-year-old said.

Fifty-three-year-old artist Gediminas Zilys, voted for Ms Simonyte.

“I understand that she will not win, but because support gives people confidence, we must vote for her to show that she has a lot of supporters,” he said.

“I like that she is categorical,” said Saida, who also voted Ms Simonyte.

“Maybe she's more confrontational, but she would better stand her ground than [Mr] Nauseda,” said the marketing specialist, 37, who gave only her first name.

But pensioner Ausra Vysniauskiene preferred Mr Nauseda.

“He's an intelligent man, he speaks many languages, he's educated, he's a banker,” the 67-year-old told AFP.

“I want men to lead, especially when the threat of war is so big.”

Lithuania is a significant donor to Ukraine, which has been battling Russia since the 2022 invasion, and is already a big defence spender, with a military budget equal to 2.75 per cent of GDP.

Lithuania intends to purchase tanks and additional air defence systems, and to host a German brigade, as Berlin plans to complete the stationing of around 5,000 troops by 2027.

Vilnius fears it could be next in the crosshairs if Moscow were to win its war against Ukraine.

The uneasy relationship between Mr Nauseda and Ms Simonyte's conservatives has at times caused foreign policy debates, most notably on Lithuania's relations with China.

Bilateral ties turned tense in 2021, when Vilnius allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy under the island's name – a departure from the common diplomatic practice of using the name of the capital Taipei to avoid angering Beijing.

China, which considers self-ruled Taiwan a part of its territory, downgraded diplomatic relations with Vilnius and blocked its exports, leading some Lithuanian politicians to urge a restoration of relations for the sake of the economy.

Mr Nauseda sees the need to change the name of the representative office, while Ms Simonyte pushes back against it.

But for voters, personal differences between the candidates, as well as economic policy and human rights, seem to matter more.

Ms Simonyte is known for a sense of humour and for writing her own social media posts. She draws support from liberal voters in bigger cities and traditional conservative voters.

A fiscal conservative with liberal views on social issues, she notably supports same-sex partnerships, which still stir controversy in the predominantly Catholic country.

“I would like to see faster progress, more openness … more tolerance for people who are different from us,” Ms Simonyte said when casting an early vote.

Mr Nauseda, who maintains a moderate and measured stance on nearly all issues, has established himself as a promoter of the welfare state, with conservative views on gay rights.

Polling stations close at 5pm, with no exit polls expected.

Updated: May 27, 2024, 7:05 AM