Lithuania’s ‘Iron Lady’ poised for victory amid Russia fears
VILNIUS, Lithuania—Lithuanians voted Sunday to elect their president, with incumbent “Iron Lady” Dalia Grybauskaite the odds-on favorite to win because of her hard line against a resurgent Russia during the Ukraine crisis.
Grybauskaite is poised to win her second term as many here who remember Soviet times see her as their best chance to fend off unwanted Russian advances amid Europe’s worst standoff with Moscow since the Cold War.
Grybauskaite, 58, who had vowed ahead of the vote to “take a gun myself to defend the country if that’s what’s needed for national security,” was expected to top the poll.
A candidate must obtain half of the votes cast with a turnout of at least 50 percent to win in the first round, a feat that Grybauskaite—a black belt in karate nicknamed the “Iron Lady” for her Thatcheresque resolve—easily pulled off in 2009.
Election commission chief Zenonas Vaigauskas said after polling stations closed Sunday that turnout was upwards of 53 percent of the country’s 2.5 million registered voters.
“President Grybauskaite managed to present herself as the politician who is best positioned to defend Lithuania,” Vilnius University analyst Kestutis Girnius told AFP.
“Voters who were undecided finally decided to vote, and probably voted for her,” he added.
Six challengers who all polled around 10 percent in pre-election surveys were not regarded as serious contenders.
“The Lithuania of tomorrow depends on the decision every Lithuanian citizen makes today,” Grybauskaite said as she cast her ballot in the capital Vilnius.
The election comes as Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s former Crimean peninsula and sabre-rattling in the neighbouring Russian exclave of Kaliningrad have sparked deep-seated fears in Lithuania, a country of three million.
Elvyra Vaicaityte, a student in a border town, is spooked by rumblings of military might in Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Lithuania and fellow NATO member Poland.
“I can hear explosions during exercises, and windows often rattle—I don’t feel very secure,” the 23-year-old told AFP.
Grybauskaite first urged and then welcomed the arrival of American troops last month as NATO stepped up its presence in the Baltic states, which spent five decades under Soviet occupation until 1991.
Having joined the EU and NATO in 2004, Lithuania along with fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia are all keen to see more Alliance boots on the ground amid the Ukraine crisis.
Iron will versus soft touch
“Russia has always been a threat. I was deported to Siberia at the age of eight and spent 14 years there,” Pranas Baltrenas told AFP after he and his wife voted for Grybauskaite.
“We saw a period of thaw after regaining independence, but now we’re seeing provocations again. We must react to the current situation, and I think Grybauskaite’s reaction is appropriate,” he said.
She has backed the country’s first liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal intended to boost energy security by decreasing dependence for gas on Russia’s Gazprom.
The former EU budget commissioner also sees eurozone entry in 2015 as an economic buffer against Moscow.
In contrast to her firm line, Grybauskaite’s center-left and populist rivals insist on dialogue with Russia, and have focused more on social issues.
“We’ll have to seek dialogue with Russia. Any kind of peace is better than a war,” Social Democrat Zigmantas Balcytis said ahead of the ballot.
Balcytis and populist Labor party MP Arturas Paulauskas are Grybauskaite’s most likely rivals in the case of a run-off.
Algis Krupavicius, a lecturer in Lithuania’s second city of Kaunas, told AFP: “The Ukraine crisis is an important mobilizing factor, and Grybauskaite’s stern rhetoric is likely to appeal to center-right voters.”
Augustinas Vizbaras, a 29-year-old Vilnius entrepreneur, said Grybauskaite has his vote. He volunteered in a paramilitary unit that was part of Lithuania’s World War II-era anti-Soviet resistance.
“We feel a Russian threat and I felt a civic duty to join the unit so that we prevent a repeat of a Ukraine scenario here,” Vizbaras told AFP.—Vaidotas Beniusis