Lithuanians to choose new Parliament amid virus tensions

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA (AP) — Lithuanian voters will choose a new Parliament today for a nation that has seen a recent surge in COVID-19 cases and whose centre-right coalition government has faced strong criticism over soaring virus-related unemployment.

The Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, the party that leads a majority coalition with three smaller partners, hopes to remain in power in the southernmost Baltic republic. Pre-election polls showed they are marginally ahead of the opposition conservative Homeland Union-Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the populist Labour party and the centre-right Liberal Movement.

Five or six parties are expected to cross the five per cent threshold to enter the 141-seat Seimas Parliament but none is likely to get more than 20 per cent support, so horse-trading talks to form a coalition are expected after the election.

The recent sharp rise in virus infections and new restrictions may force many voters to stay at home, affecting turnout among Lithuania’s 2.4 million registered voters. A second round of voting has been set for October 25 in constituencies where no candidate gets a majority.

Many Lithuanians complain that the government did not do enough to help companies during the nation’s coronavirus lockdown, as the unemployment rate jumped from nine per cent in February to more than 14 per cent in October. Others said the strict health regulations focussed on fighting the virus left thousands of other patients without proper access to health services.

Supporters of the ruling coalition said this coastal Baltic country was among the lucky ones that suffered relatively lightly in the pandemic. So far Lithuania has seen 5,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and and just above 100 deaths.

Lithuania has kept strong democratic traditions since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. It has also played a major role as the protests in neighbouring Belarus unfold against that nation’s authoritarian leader.

Lithuania has granted shelter to Belarus opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled Belarus after challenging President Alexander Lukashenko in the country’s August 9 presidential vote.

Officials said Lukashenko won a sixth term in office but opposition members said the election was riddled with fraud.

People disinfect hands to cast their ballots during an early vote, ahead of the parliamentary elections at a polling stations in Vilnius. PHOTO: AFP