Lithuanians began voting yesterday to elect their president, with “Iron Lady” President Dalia Grybauskaite a shoo-in as fears in the EU Baltic state soar over a resurgent Russia.
The karate black belt, nicknamed for her Thatcheresque resolve, is poised to win a second term, as many here who remember Soviet times see her as a their best hope amid Europe’s worst standoff with Moscow since the Cold War.
A former EU budget chief, the 58-year-old Grybauskaite is likely to score more than 50 percent of the vote, recent opinion surveys showed, but low turnout could trigger a May 25 run-off in this NATO member country.
Six other candidates have all polled about 10 percent and are not regarded as serious rivals.
“If turnout exceeds 50 percent, she has quite a good chance of scoring a first-round victory,” Vilnius University political scientist Ramunas Vilpisauskas told reporters.
A candidate must win half of the votes cast with a turnout of at least 50 percent to win in round one. In 2009, Grybauskaite captured a resounding 69.04 percent of the vote in the seven-candidate first round with turnout at 51.67 percent.
This election comes as Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and saber-rattling in the neighboring Russian exclave of Kaliningrad have sparked palpable fear in Lithuania, a country of 3 million.
Elvyra Vaicaityte, a student living a stone’s throw from Kaliningrad, is spooked by rumblings of military might in the Russian exclave, sandwiched between Lithuania and fellow NATO member, Poland.
“I can hear explosions during exercises and windows often rattle — I don’t feel very secure,” the 23-year-old told reporters in the border town of Vilkaviskis.
Grybauskaite first urged and then welcomed the arrival of US troops last month as NATO stepped up its presence in the Baltic states, which spent five decades under Soviet occupation until 1991.
Lithuania along with Baltic minnows Latvia and Estonia all are keen to see more alliance “boots on the ground” amid the Ukraine crisis.
Grybauskaite has sworn to take up arms herself in case of Russian aggression.
“If there’s a problem, I’ll never flee abroad. I’ll take a gun myself to defend the country if that what’s needed for national security,” she said as campaigning wound down on Thursday.
Aurelija, a 36-year-old Vilnius businesswoman who declined to provide her family name, is impressed by Grybauskaite’s “determination, courage and strength” as national security has become a No. 1 priority.
“In calm times, a hard-line style could be annoying, but that is not the case now. Other candidates are weak opponents,” she told reporters.
Grybauskaite has backed the country’s first liquefied natural gas terminal intended to boost energy security by easing total dependence for gas on Russia’s Gazprom.
She also sees eurozone entry next year as an economic buffer against Moscow.
In contrast to Grybauskaite’s firm line, her center-left and populist rivals insist dialogue with Russia is crucial, and have focused more on social issues.
“We’ll have to seek dialogue with Russia. Any kind of peace is better than a war,” Social Democrat Zigmantas Balcytis said.
Balcytis, a member of the European Parliament, and populist Labor party MP Arturas Paulauskas are her most likely rivals in a possible run-off.
“The Ukraine crisis is an important mobilizing factor, and Grybauskaite’s stern rhetoric is likely to have appeal among center-right voters,” professor Algis Krupavicius said.