VILNIUS (Reuters) - Pre-election favorites Ingrida Simonyte and Gitanas Nauseda will face off in the second round of Lithuania’s presidential election as Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis conceded defeat in Sunday’s vote and said he would resign his post.
Lithuanians voted in large numbers in the contest to succeed outgoing President Dalia Grybauskaite, the Baltic nation’s “Iron Lady,” who was one of the European Union’s most outspoken critics of Russia.
Simonyte won the round with 31.4 percent, only a 2,647-vote advangate over Nauseda who had 31.2 percent, according to election authority data. Skvernelis had 21 percent.
Simonyte, 44, a former finance minister in a center-right government, and Nauseda, 54, a former senior economist at a top bank, will compete in a May 26 runoff.
Both candidates promised the voters to work with political parties to increase social spending and to ask NATO and the United States to up security measures in the region to better protect it from Russia.
Both told Reuters they do not want to meet Russia’s president Vladimir Putin unless his country withdraws from Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
“I would like to be the president who initiates national agreements, to find solutions on many, many questions, which are very complicated and were not solved for many years, especially in education and healthcare,” Nauseda told reporters after the voting.
“My message in the second round will be that we need to care not only for big cities but also for smaller towns, so that we don’t have two Lithuanias, but one Lithuania, which is successful and strong,” Simonyte told reporters.
Skvernelis, 48, conceded defeat in front of disappointed supporters in the capital, Vilnius, and said he would resign as prime minister on July 12.
Skvernelis’ Farmers and Greens party, which has 51 seats in the 141-member parliament, said they would move to opposition if it does not win European Parliament elections on May 26, a likely outcome, according to polls.
An early general election, a minority government or a caretaker government have been discussed in the local media as most likely outcomes of the Skvernlis resignation. The next general election is due on October 2020.
Still very popular, Grybauskaite, 63, is not eligible to run again after two terms. The top three candidates vying to succeed her had pledged to maintain a tough stance against Vilnius’ former Soviet master, as well as hefty military spending.
Five years after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine that sparked fears of further Russian aggression across Eastern Europe, the election campaign in Lithuania was dominated by voter anger over economic inequality and corruption.
Income inequality is among the highest in the European Union, second only to Bulgaria.
Both Nauseda and Simonyte say tax income should be raised to fund more state spending, although Skvernelis has introduced a tax cut as a signature policy of his government.
“I try to appeal to people by saying, look, there are no simple answers, and there are many headwinds,” said Simonyte, the finance minister when the government cut public-sector wages and pensions in 2009 as a state default loomed.
Nauseda, a household name from his role as an economic commentator, said he would use the president’s position to help business expand in emerging markets, especially China, and ask the government to increase revenues and better fund social services, such as pensions.
Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Writing by Johan Ahlander; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Cooney