Lithuania’s Nauseda eyes re-election in run-off overshadowed by Russia

Incumbent president says he sees Russia as an ‘enemy’ and has accused Moscow of trying to destabilise Vilnius.

Voters in Lithuania cast their ballot during the second round of the presidential election at a polling station in capital Vilnius
Voters in Lithuania cast their ballots during the second round of the presidential election at a polling station in Vilnius, the capital [Petras Malukas/AFP]

Lithuania is holding its presidential election, with incumbent Gitanas Nauseda expected to win after a campaign dominated by security concerns in the post-Soviet state.

Sunday’s vote is a rematch between Nauseda and his closest rival, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, who has also promised to keep the country’s policies pro-European.

The Baltic nation of 2.8 million people has been a staunch ally of Ukraine since Russia’s 2022 invasion. Like other countries in the region, the NATO and European Union member worries it could be Moscow’s next target.

Nauseda, 60, a former senior economist with the Swedish banking group SEB who is not affiliated with any party, won the first round of the election on May 12 with 44 percent of the votes, short of the 50 percent he needed for an outright victory.

He is running against Simonyte, 49, from the governing centre-right Homeland Union party that has been trailing in opinion polls. She was the only woman out of eight candidates in the first round and came second with 20 percent.

More than half of Lithuanians believe a Russian attack is possible or very likely, according to an ELTA/Baltijos Tyrimai poll conducted between February and March. Russia has regularly dismissed the idea that it might attack a NATO member.

Nauseda told a debate on Tuesday he sees Russia as an enemy.

“Our enemies – who even call themselves our enemies, who are enemies of us and all the democratic world – are attempting to destabilise our politics, and we must do all to resist.”

Both Nauseda and Simonyte support increasing defence spending to at least 3 percent of Lithuania’s gross domestic product, from the 2.75 percent planned for this year.

But Nauseda, who is a social conservative, has clashed with Simonyte on other issues, including whether to give legal recognition to same-sex civil partnerships, which Nauseda opposes. He has said it would make such unions too similar to marriage, which Lithuania’s constitution allows only for a man and a woman.

Simonyte, a former finance minister and fiscal hawk, said on Thursday that if she won, “the direction for the country – pro-European, pro-Western – would not change”.

“But I would like quicker progress, more openness and understanding, larger tolerance to people who are different from us,” she added.

Lithuania’s president has a semi-executive role, which includes heading the armed forces, chairing the supreme defence and national security policy body and representing the country at EU and NATO summits.

The president sets foreign and security policy in tandem with the government, can veto laws and has a say in the appointment of key officials such as judges, the chief prosecutor, the chief of defence and the head of the central bank.

The uneasy relationship between Nauseda and Simonyte has at times triggered foreign policy debates, most notably on Lithuania’s relations with China.

Bilateral ties turned tense in 2021, when Vilnius allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy under the island’s name, a departure from the common diplomatic practice of using the name of the capital, Taipei, to avoid angering Beijing.

China, which considers self-ruled Taiwan a part of its territory, downgraded diplomatic relations with Vilnius and blocked its exports, leading some Lithuanian politicians to urge a restoration of relations for the sake of the economy.

It will be the second time Nauseda and Simonyte have competed in a presidential run-off. In 2019, Nauseda beat Simonyte with 66 percent of the vote.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies