Lithuania Holds Runoff Vote Amid Russia Expansion Worry

Lithuanians are voting in a presidential runoff election, with Dalia Grybauskaite set to retain her post after pledging to reinforce the country’s defenses as Russian expansionism rattles the Baltic region.

Grybauskaite, 58, garnered more than three times as many votes as her rival, former Finance Minister Zigmantas Balcytis, in the May 11 first round. Voting ends at 8 p.m. in the capital, Vilnius, with early results due about two hours later. Turnout was 7.4 percent as of 10 a.m., in addition to 6.6 percent in early voting, according to the election commission.

Grybauskaite, a former European Union budget commissioner, used the campaign to focus on her defense credentials while accusing the government, led by allies of Balcytis, of inaction. The Baltic states are seeking permanent NATO bases to counter what they say is Russia’s military buildup in the region. The alliance has added air patrols and land troops in the region after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, which also holds a presidential election today.

“It’s today that our country needs additional security,” Grybauskaite said in a televised debate May 22. “We’ve witnessed massive military maneuvering on our border in Kaliningrad just last week. A Russian army of 40,000 remains on Ukraine’s border. We’re in the vortex of threats.”

Russia Pullback

The U.S. and Ukraine have accused Putin of failing to live up to his repeated pledges to pull troops back from Ukraine’s border. Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s General Staff, said May 23 that the withdrawal began May 19 and will take about 20 days.

The U.S. has observed “the movement of some units away from the border region,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said May 23. “It’s not in great number right now.”

Grybauskaite, bidding for a second five-year term, has used the campaign to emphasize her role in boosting NATO’s military presence in the region, which regained its independence as the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago. She got 45.9 percent of the first-round vote, compared with 13.6 percent for Balcytis.

The result may be close, with 1-2 percentage points separating the two candidates, Balcytis said after voting in Vilnius, according to the BNS news service.

Sabonis, Aerosmith

In the two weeks since the first round, Grybauskaite sought to boost her profile through appearances with sports and music celebrities, and intensified her criticism of the Social Democrat-led government that endorses her contender.

Having mostly avoided non-official appearances through her presidential term, Grybauskaite grabbed media attention by attending a basketball game, the country’s most popular sport, alongside former NBA player Arvydas Sabonis. She also met Steven Tyler, the frontman of the rock band Aerosmith on tour in Lithuania, and released pictures of the encounter.

Balcytis, 60, a candidate from the Social Democrat party, supervised the country’s earlier failed attempt to adopt the euro and has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. The country is on course to join the euro area in January.

Balcytis rejected his responsibility for Lithuania’s failure to switch to the euro in 2007, blaming Scandinavian banks for sparking inflation with cheap credit during the housing boom. Ultimately, it was the European Union’s “political decision” to keep Lithuania out of the euro area, he said.

‘Only Talking’

Grybauskaite stepped up her criticism of the government for “only talking and not getting any work done” since coming to power in a 2012 ballot, irking Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius.

“I was surprised by comments that the government hasn’t done any work,” said Butkevicius in a radio interview with Ziniu Radijas. “It’s cheap election populism that doesn’t befit the head of state. One shouldn’t try to draw voters with emotional lies.”

Grybauskaite said in a TV debate on May 15 she would seek some ministerial changes in the current government if re-elected, underscoring the president’s “limited powers” to alter the configuration of the ruling coalition.

Though Balcytis repeatedly reiterates his support for the Butkevicius government, he also wants at least three ministerial changes that “will improve the work of the government” if elected, he said in an interview with LNK television on May 21.

No Reason

Butkevicius said today that he sees no reason for any changes in the cabinet after the election, according to the BNS news service.

According to the Lithuanian constitution, the government must return powers to the president after the presidential election. A new cabinet will be formed after receiving approval from the new president and after a vote in parliament.

Balcytis’s victory would give the two top posts to the Social Democrats, threatening the “independence of the two offices,” Grybauskaite said. Balcytis has won the endorsement from all four political parties in the ruling coalition.

Grybauskaite, an independent candidate, is also a former finance minister and served as EU commissioner in 2004-2009. A victory would return to office a leader who fired more judges than all of her predecessors combined and supported budget austerity during the economic crises to prepare for euro adoption next year.

In Lithuania, the president is responsible for foreign policy, nominates cabinets for parliamentary approval, appoints judges and has the right to veto laws.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the name of the capital in the second paragraph.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.