Presidential election in Lithuania against a backdrop of “Russian threat”

Presidential election in Lithuania against a backdrop of “Russian threat”
Presidential election in Lithuania against a backdrop of “Russian threat”

Lithuanians vote this Sunday in the first round of the presidential election after a campaign dominated by defense issues, with Vilnius seeking to strengthen its security against neighboring Russia. The Baltic country of 2.8 million inhabitants, a former Soviet republic which borders the highly militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, fears it will be the next target if Moscow were to win its war against Ukraine.

“Lithuania’s understanding of the Russian threat is unanimous and indisputable, and the main candidates agree on it”, summarizes Linas Kojala, director of the Center for Eastern European Studies in Vilnius. Polls give the outgoing president, Gitanas Nauseda, a 59-year-old former banker, a comfortable lead over the seven other candidates, including Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte and a well-known lawyer, Ignas Vegele.

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Observers predict Gitanas Nauseda’s victory in the second round at the end of the month. In the first round, Gitanas Nauseda should obtain more than 35% of the votes, according to a latest poll which gives 12% to Ignas Vegele and 10% to Ingrida Simonyte. The Lithuanian president co-leads, with the government, foreign policy and participates in EU and NATO summits. He must consult the government and Parliament for the appointment of the highest civil servants. While the three main candidates agree on defense, they have divergent views on relations between Lithuania and China, which have been tense for years over relations with Taiwan.

Record defense budget

Ignas Vegele, a 48-year-old lawyer who rose to prominence by opposing mandatory vaccination during the pandemic, presents himself as an alternative to established politicians and promises governance “more transparent”. Ingrida Simonyte, 49, defends conservative views on economic matters and liberal views on social issues. She particularly supports same-sex partnerships, which still cause controversy in this predominantly Catholic country.

Ingrida Simonyte is running for president for the second time after losing to Gitanas Nauseda in the runoff of the 2019 election. “Ms Simonyte is supported by conservative party voters and liberals, while Mr Nauseda is a left-wing candidate in terms of economic and social policy”explains Ramunas Vilpisauskas, analyst at Vilnius University. “As for Mr. Vegele, he will receive the support of those who simply want change”he adds.

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Lithuania, a member country of the European Union and NATO, is known for being one of Ukraine’s main donors and its significant defense spending, which represents 2.75% of its GDP and the government of Ingrida Simonyte wants to increase to 3%. Vilnius intends to use these funds to purchase additional tanks and air defense systems, and to host a German brigade on its territory. Berlin plans to station around 5,000 soldiers in Lithuania by 2027. None of the main candidates have said they want to call these plans into question.

Beijing’s reaction

However, there is no consensus regarding relations with China. Bilateral ties were strained in 2021 when Vilnius allowed Taiwan to open a representation under the island’s name, a departure from the common diplomatic practice of using the name of the capital, Taipei, to avoid anger. Beijing. China, which considers Taiwan as part of its territory and opposes any support for the island likely to give it any international legitimacy, has in retaliation downgraded its diplomatic relations with Vilnius and blocked its exports.

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Gitanas Nauseda said during the election campaign that he saw “the need to change the name of the representative office”. Ingrida Simonyte opposed the name change, while Ignas Vegele supported Gitanas Nauseda ruling that “the opening of a representative office with this name was a rash decision”. “China’s reaction to the opening of the office was harsher than expected, which sparked the debate”analyzes Linas Kojala, pointing to the negative consequences for local businesses of the deterioration of relations with Beijing.

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