VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuanians voted Sunday in the first round of the parliamentary election in which the electorate will choose 141 national lawmakers, and the ruling four-party coalition is facing a stiff challenge from the opposition.
After polls had closed at 1700 GMT (1 p.m. EDT), Lithuania's Central Electoral Commission said that initial voter turnout stood at 47.16%, which is 3 percentage points lower than in the 2016 election.
Results were expected by early Monday, but the commission said there might be delays in counting because of early voting by citizens and strict coronavirus measures.
Pre-election polls in the Baltic nation showed 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.
President Gitanas Nauseda came to vote with his wife Diana at a polling station in Vilnius, the capital, and told reporters he hoped for better mutual understanding and cooperation with the new Parliament.
“I wish the next five or several years to be splendid for Lithuania. We have all the opportunities for that,” said Nauseda, who assumed the head of state's post in this European Union and NATO member last year.
He said what the country needed following the election was “a clear vision and strategy.”
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.
Marius Sulga, a 44-year-old teacher from Lithuania's second-largest city, Kaunas, said he voted for one of the opposition parties.
“I'm tired with all of these regulations, restrictions and limitations that came with this Cabinet long before the pandemic period,” Sulga said. "It is just not the kind of Lithuania that we dreamed about when we broke away from (the Soviet) occupation decades ago.“
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.
Marija Kazlauskiene, a 75-year-old retiree, said she prefers the ruling coalition.
“They have done a tremendous job in saving the country from this virus — just look at those other poor countries in the EU. Lithuania has managed to avoid all of that suffering,” she said after casting her ballot in downtown Vilnius.
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 Baltic neighbors Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania swiftly imposed sanctions against Belarusian leaders, and the EU — a 27-nation bloc that includes the three Baltic nations — eventually followed suit with sanctions. Belarus isn't an EU member.
Mindaugas Kulbis contributed to this report.