By LIUDAS DAPKUS, Associated Press
VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuanians exasperated with economic hardship handed a stunning victory to a populist party led by a disgraced Russia-born millionaire, nearly complete results of Sunday's election show, while voicing resounding disapproval of plans to build a costly new nuclear power plant.
The opposition Labor Party, led by Viktor Uspaskich, once dubbed as the "pickle king" for having made his fortune selling jarred pickles, was leading with 23.4 percent of the vote after nearly three-fourths of precincts was counted.
The victory set the stage for a coalition with the Social Democrats, who were second with 19.4 percent, and Order and Justice, a populist party led by Rolandas Paksas, a stunt pilot who eventually became president in 2003 — only to be impeached the following year for violating the Constitution and abuse of office. Paksas' party was fourth with 9.2 percent.
All three parties promised radical policy changes, including increased wages and lower taxes, while the Social Democrats said that Lithuania should postpone introducing the euro until Europe could straighten out its current financial mess.
The current conservative ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, has expressed its interest in adopting the euro in 2014.
Some 12.3 percent of voters supported the Kubilius-led Homeland Union, which came to power just as Lithuania was sliding into one of the worst recessions in Europe. Kubilius' government was forced to raise taxes and cut expenses to ward off bankruptcy, and largely succeeded given that Lithuania did not have to turn to international lenders for bailout funds.
Lithuania is nevertheless beset with high unemployment — over 13 percent in the second quarter — and falling living standards due in large part to higher energy costs. Tens of thousands have left the country to find jobs elsewhere in Europe, and the results of a recent census showed that the Baltic state has lost about 1 percent of its population over the past two decades since splitting from the Soviet Union and that this year the population dipped below the threshold of 3 million people.
Leaders of the three opposition parties met early Monday to hash out the broad outlines of an agreement that could possibly lead to a new government coalition.
However, only half the seats in the 141-member Parliament are determined by party lists, while the other half consists of single-mandates, many of which will require a run-off ballot in two weeks. Only then will a clear picture of who could form the next government emerge.
"Tonight we started to form a working group that will conduct coalition talks and coordinate our moves in the second round (of voting) on Oct. 28," Uspaskich told reporters.
The Labor Party victory in the party-list phase would signify a tremendous comeback for Uspaskich, a member of the European Parliament still under investigation in Lithuania for allegedly fraudulent party finance operations.
In 2006 he was forced to resign as economy minister for a conflict-of-interest case with Russia and suspicions about a faked diploma from a Moscow-based institute. At one point he fled Lithuania, claiming political persecution, only to return to the Baltic state and be perp-walked in handcuffs in front of reporters.
Even if Uspaskich's party wins the greatest number of seats in the 141-member Parliament, it is far from certain that he would get the nod for prime minister, since President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose duty is to appoint the head of government, has expressed deep reservations about Uspaskich's integrity.
Meanwhile, Lithuania's election authority said that nearly two-thirds of voters have rejected the idea of building a new nuclear power plant.
The Central Election Commission said that with 45 percent of precincts counted, some 64 percent of votes cast in the referendum were against the new plant, while 36 percent were in support. The commission said the proportion was unlikely to change.
Although the referendum was non-binding, a strong 'no' vote could torpedo Lithuania's plans to build the facility along with neighbors Estonia and Latvia and Japan's Hitachi, as all sides have suggested that the project made no sense if it lacked popular support.
No less important, the opposition parties geared to take over the government have expressed reservations about the project and said that Lithuania should seek cheaper energy alternatives.
The current center-right government has argued that the plant is necessary to wean Lithuania off its energy dependence on Russia, while critics have countered that the project, at a cost of $6 billion, is too expensive and the Fukushima catastrophe has cast an indelible shadow over Japanese nuclear technology.