VILNIUS (Reuters) - Lithuanians voted out their government in an election on Sunday, an exit poll showed, in a taste of what may await other European leaders forced by the financial crisis to implement unpopular austerity measures.
An ex-Soviet state of about three million people, Lithuania crashed hard when the crisis hit four years ago. It made tough budget cuts in response and is now returning to economic health - but too late for voters fed up with belt-tightening.
An exit poll read out on national television after voting finished suggested that Lithuanians had thrown out centre-right Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius in favour of a coalition of left-leaning opposition parties who promise to soften the austerity.
The RAIT/BNS exit poll gave the biggest share of the vote, 19.8 percent, to the Labour Party. The centre-left Social Democrats, likely coalition partner for Labour, were second with 17.8 percent and the prime minister's Homeland Union was in third place on 16.7 percent.
The Baltic Sea nation, held up by eurozone countries as a model of how to respond to the crisis, is a bellwether for governments in Greece, Spain, Ireland and elsewhere, who are being forced to make similar swingeing cuts.
The final shape of the next government will not be clear until talks take place on forming a coalition. It may come down to a second round, to take place in two weeks, which will settle races in local districts where no candidate had a clear lead.
But it appeared very unlikely on Sunday that the prime minister would be able to stay in power, after voters held him accountable for the tough decisions he had to take to drag Lithuania out of crisis.
"What kind of crisis management are we talking about?" asked Alfonsus Spudys, 78, on his way out of a polling station earlier on Sunday in the capital, Vilnius. "They scythed people down ... and now they are saying they handled the crisis really well."
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Rosalind Russell