(Bloomberg) — Lithuanians are voting in a general election that’s shaping up to be the most unpredictable in years.
Despite the coronavirus-stricken economy being on course to outperform all but one other European Union member this year, polls suggest Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis could have a fight on his hands to form a new government. His ruling party is neck-and-neck with its main challenger, with a swathe of the Baltic country’s 2.8 million people unhappy at uneven gains from European integration.
Seven parties could reach parliament, likely all with less than 20% of the vote — clouding the path to who gets control. Voting is split into two rounds: The first, on Sunday, will pick legislators from party lists. The second, two weeks later, is for individual constituencies that are trickier to predict and aren’t tracked by pollsters.
“This is a complicated puzzle — everyone’s very close to each other and it looks crowded,” said Rima Urbonaite, a political scientist at Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius. “Predicting the likely outcome is like reading tea leaves. The real drama will begin after the second round over the formation of the coalition. That won’t be an easy process.”
The pandemic will loom over the election. Voters will be required to stand more than a meter apart, cover their faces and bring their own pens. Polling booths will be disinfected frequently.
Skvernelis is banking on his record through the Covid-19 outbreak to see him through. The government, led by his Farmers and Greens party, paid handouts to retired people and families, also helping companies keep workers on. The economy is set to contract as little as 2% this year — a forecast that’s bettered only by Ireland within the EU.
But there have been scandals — an eight-month stint where the cabinet consisted solely of men, a court ruling that the government obstructed journalists and a third of high-school students failing a math graduation exam. Skvernelis also backed out of a promise to quit his job after losing the presidential election in 2019.
That vote spawned a rival in this ballot. While also losing, former Finance Minister Ingrida Simonyte improved her standing and now leads Homeland Union, polling in second place. She wants women to represent at least half of the new cabinet.
Her party’s austerity policies after the 2008 global financial crisis are often blamed for worsening inequality and prompting tens of thousands of Lithuanians to emigrate in search of a better life to the continent’s richer west.
That’s helped make social injustice a theme of this election. The biggest parties are promising to create a welfare state — an idea that helped propel former SEB Bank AB economist Gitanas Nauseda to the presidency last year.
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