VILNIUS (Reuters) - Lithuania held the first round of a parliamentary election on Sunday, seen as a vote of confidence on Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis’ handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The centrist Farmers and Greens party, an agrarian grouping that leads Skvernelis’ ruling coalition, was neck-and-neck in opinion polls before the vote with the centre-right Homeland Union, which has roots in the 1980s anti-Soviet independence movement.
With support roughly 15% for both, and 15 other parties on the ballot, another coalition is inevitable but its makeup uncertain.
Polls closed at 1700 GMT and official results were expected to trickle in throughout the evening, starting with the smallest, rural precincts, with a final tally likely around 2100 GMT.
Main political parties could announce their own predictions on how well they did before final results are collected.
Under Lithuania’s hybrid election system, half of the 141-member parliament will be elected on Sunday in a proportional vote. The remaining lawmakers are elected in constituencies, with a run-off vote for the top two candidates in each of them scheduled on Oct. 25.
Lithuania has reported 8,899 coronavirus infections - including a record 205 new cases on Saturday - and 103 deaths.
Mindful of contagion, election officials asked voters to mark ballots with their own pens.
“Voting is really safe, there’s nothing to fear”, Skvernelis told reporters after casting his vote early on Sunday. “So let’s all come to the booths and perform our civic duty.”
Many in the Baltic Sea state of less than 3 million are aggrieved at income inequality despite brisk economic growth since Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004.
A fifth of people were at risk of poverty in 2019, mostly the elderly, which was the same figure as a decade ago, according to the state statistics authority.
However, Lithuania’s relative resistance to the economic impact of coronavirus curbs has helped offset a previous slump in support for the government over corruption allegations.
The economy decreased 4% year-on-year in the second quarter of 2020, the second best result in the EU. The central bank attributed that to a prompt and short lockdown, generous state support and relatively unaffected trading partners.
Many Lithuanians are keenly watching the government and President Gitanas Nauseda’s response to a crackdown on anti-government protests by neighbouring Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko following a disputed election.
Lithuania, and neighbours Latvia and Estonia, were the first EU members to impose sanctions on Lukashenko.
Vilnius has also given shelter to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who fled her homeland after the Aug. 9 ballot her supporters say was rigged.
Reporting By Andrius Sytas; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Justyna Pawlak and Frances Kerry
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