VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Polls opened Sunday for the first round of Lithuania’s parliamentary election, where voters will choose 141 national lawmakers and the ruling four-party coalition is facing a stiff challenge from the opposition.
Pre-election polls in the Baltic nation show the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, which now leads the coalition government, marginally ahead of the opposition conservative Homeland Union-Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the populist Labor party and the center-right Liberal Movement.
A recent surge in COVID-19 cases, soaring virus-related unemployment and economic challenges are the major issues that have sparked criticism of the current coalition government.
Five or six parties are expected to cross the 5% threshold to enter the Seimas assembly but none is likely to get more than 20% support, so horse-trading talks to form a new governing coalition are very likely after the election.
The recent sharp rise in coronavirus infections in Lithuania and new restrictions to fight the spread of COVID-19 may affect turnout among the country’s 2.4 million registered voters. Some 7.3% have already cast their ballots in an early voting, according to the Central Electoral Commission.
A second round of voting has been set for Oct. 25 in constituencies where no candidate gets a majority.
Many Lithuanians complain that government did not do enough to help companies during the nation’s coronavirus lockdown, as the unemployment rate jumped from 9% in February to more than 14% in October. Others say the strict health regulations focused on fighting the virus left thousands of other patients without proper access to health services.
Supporters of the ruling coalition say this coastal Baltic country has suffered relatively lightly in the pandemic. So far Lithuania has seen 5,963 confirmed coronavirus cases and and just above 100 deaths.
Lithuania has kept strong democratic traditions since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. It has also played a major role as the protests in neighboring Belarus unfold against that nation’s authoritarian leader.
Lithuania has granted shelter to Belarus opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled Belarus after challenging President Alexander Lukashenko in the country’s Aug. 9 presidential vote. Officials said Lukashenko won a sixth term in office but opposition members say the election was riddled with fraud.
Together with its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania swiftly imposed sanctions against Belarusian leaders, and the European Union — a 27-nation bloc that includes the three Baltic nations — eventually followed suit with sanctions. Belarus is not an EU member.