Political novice wins Lithuania presidential race

Vaidotas BENIUSIS and Mary SIBIERSKI in Warsaw
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Nauseda is a 55-year-old former bank advisor and economist

Nauseda is a 55-year-old former bank advisor and economist (AFP Photo/Petras Malukas)

Vilnius (AFP) - Gitanas Nauseda, a centre-right independent and political novice, won Lithuania's presidential runoff in a race marked by low populist sentiment and concerns over inequality in the Baltic eurozone state.

Although Lithuanian presidents do not directly craft economic policy, bread-and-butter issues have dominated the race.

Experts also noted that by choosing between two pro-EU, centre-right candidates in the runoff, Lithuanians who see the European Union as a source of prosperity and security bucked growing eurosceptic and populist sentiment in the bloc.

Vowing to build a "welfare state", Nauseda said he would bridge the gap between rich and poor in Lithuania, which is among the most pronounced in the 28-member EU, adding that he would also seek to bring urban and rural Lithuanians closer together.

"All people can live with dignity in this small country," the 55-year-old former bank advisor and economist told reporters as he claimed victory at his campaign headquarters in the capital Vilnius following Sunday's vote.

Nauseda also hinted he wanted to soften Lithuania's often sharp rhetoric towards Russia, but insisted that relations could only be improved if Moscow changes its policy towards Ukraine.

Challenger Ingrida Simonyte, a conservative-backed independent MP conceded defeat, telling public broadcaster LRT she had wished Nauseda "success in uniting Lithuanian people."

Nauseda scored 65.86 percent of the vote ahead of 32.86 percent for Simonyte based on full official results from all 1972 polling stations.

Vilnius voter Jonas Jovaisas, 25, said that Nauseda's lack of party affiliation made him the most suitable to lead the nation.

"He doesn't depend on any political party and that will help him to work with any parliament or government," he told AFP after casting a ballot for Nauseda.

He will replace popular incumbent President Dalia Grybauskaite, a 63-year-old independent who cannot run for a third consecutive term.

Dubbed the "Iron Lady" for her hard line on Russia, Grybauskaite is tipped as a possible for European Council president.

- Rich-poor divide -

Lithuania is struggling with a sharp population decline owing to mass emigration to Western Europe by people seeking better opportunities.

The rivals pledged to bridge the rich-poor divide in the nation of 2.8 million where, despite solid economic growth, almost 30 percent are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, notably in rural areas.

Growth is forecast at 2.7 percent this year, higher that 1.1 percent average in the 19-member eurozone, but income inequality is still among the highest in the EU.

Decades of TV appearances as an economic expert have made the married father-of-two a household name reputed for his intelligence, calm and moderation.

Critics, however, had argued his platform is too vague and see his political inexperience and business links as liabilities.

Simonyte, 44, was finance minister during the global financial crisis and saw the economy shrink by nearly 15 percent, a decline that took a high toll on low-income earners.

Socially liberal, she supports same-sex partnerships, a position which has stirred controversy in the predominantly Catholic country.

- Firm on Russia -

Lithuanian presidents steer defence and foreign policy, attending EU and NATO summits, but while they have veto powers they must agree senior appointments with the prime minister.

Nauseda firmly supports EU and NATO membership as bulwarks against neighbouring Russia, especially since Moscow's 2014 military intervention in Ukraine.

Grybauskaite had called Russia a "terrorist state" in 2014 after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine but Nauseda said on Sunday that he "would like to be diplomatic and to use wording which could be slightly different from what we used previously."

But he added that "it will be very difficult to improve relations" with Russia if it continues its current policy on Ukraine.

"We cannot tolerate this," Nauseda said.

Political expert Linas Kojala said the new president will face issues including Lithuania's position on EU-US disagreements, security concerns tied to Chinese investment and whether to forge closer ties with neighbouring Belarus.

Turnout was 53.43 percent for the presidential ballot which coincided Sunday with European elections.