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Lithuania: Former Prime Minister Scores Surprise Victory In Presidential Elections

Preliminary results indicate that former Lithuanian Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas defeated incumbent Valdas Adamkus in Lithuania's presidential elections yesterday. Paksas got almost 55 percent of the runoff vote, while Adamkus received 45 percent. Adamkus led the country to its recent invitation to join NATO and the European Union, and the election results are seen as a surprise.

Prague, 6 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Former Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas won a surprise victory over incumbent Valdas Adamkus in Lithuania's presidential election yesterday.

Adamkus's defeat comes as somewhat of a surprise. The incumbent led Lithuania to its history-making invitations this year to join both NATO and the European Union. The country's gross domestic product also grew an estimated 5 percent in 2002. But even such visible achievements were not enough to assure victory for Adamkus, who was widely favored to win in the run-up to the vote.

Speaking early this morning, Paksas said his foreign policy would not diverge from that of his predecessor. "Our strategic aims -- membership in the EU, NATO membership, the principles of good-neighborly relations, [and] Lithuanian membership in international organizations -- will remain the priorities of our foreign policy," Paksas said.

In an interview yesterday with Reuters, Paksas was slightly more direct, saying his first presidential trip abroad would be to Brussels to "meet EU leaders and clarify the situation on certain points that do not satisfy me."

Lithuanian analysts say that such "points" may include bargaining for higher EU subsidies for farmers and help covering the costs of closing Lithuania's Soviet-model Ignalina nuclear-power plant. Lithuanian officials, however, say the country formally ended its negotiations with Brussels upon receiving an invitation to join the EU at the Copenhagen summit in December. Lithuanians are due to vote on EU entry in a referendum in May.

Andrius Kubilius, another former prime minister of Lithuania and now a member of the Lithuanian parliament, said it is difficult to predict how Paksas will perform as president.

Kubilius said only time will tell how Paksas's campaign slogans -- often aimed at populist concerns like fighting crime and corruption -- will translate into actual policy. He added that the ruling Social Democrats will play a key role in determining how successful Kubilius and his Liberal Democratic Party will be. "Paksas could be very effective at destabilizing the present situation [in Lithuania]. This is what will happen if he tries to implement the policy he promised during his election campaign. It would put growing pressure on the parliament and the government [to implement his program]," Kubilius said.

Paksas is considered a controversial figure in Lithuania. Despite two terms as the mayor of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, Paksas has been labeled a quitter since two separate terms (June 1999-October 1999 and November 2000-2001) as prime minister ended early with his resignation, leaving him with little reputation for substantive policy making.

A spokeswoman for Adamkus, Violeta Gaizauskaite, acknowledged the defeat and said the incumbent was "too polite" in the face of what she termed the "aggressive style" of Paksas.

Lauras Bielinis, an analyst at the Lithuanian Institute of International Relations, told RFE/RL that Paksas's populist approach at the polls -- with promises to fight crime and raise standards of living -- were enough to attract voters even though he did little to indicate how he would make good on his word.

Bielinis said Paksas also had sufficient money to launch a high-profile campaign, with posters and radio, television, and newspaper advertisements visible throughout the country. Using the slogan "Vote for Change," Paksas presented himself as a political outsider and a positive new force who could reverse lapses in the government's economic and social policies.

Bielinis said Paksas's campaign appealed to many Lithuanians, particularly those in rural areas whose lives have become harder in recent years, by promising to "solve all of their problems." "To put all the promises into one word, he promised his voters to give them back hope and to help them in all their affairs -- let's put it this way," Bielinis said.

Bielinis said that only some 25 percent of Lithuania's 2.5 million voters voted for Paksas and that yesterday's vote, which was marked by low voter turnout of just 52 percent, was a kind of revenge of Soviet psychology.

Bielinis said Paksas's voters are not interested in foreign policy, NATO and EU membership, or a growing GDP -- concepts that are seen as too vague and distant in comparison to social concerns and economic security. "The majority of them [want] to have someone to take care of them and do not want any responsibility," Bielinis said, adding that the 46-year-old president-elect may appear a more dynamic option than Adamkus, 30 years his senior.

Parliamentarian Kubilius said another reason behind Adamkus's defeat may be that many of his supporters, pleased by the incumbent's obvious successes in the foreign-policy arena, simply assumed that he would win easily and did not consider it necessary to vote. "The beneficial prospects [of joining the EU and NATO] have put Lithuanian voters and Adamkus himself to sleep. To them, it seemed like all the major political goals had already been achieved and that it would be possible to just observe the elections from the outside. That's why the large number of the voters who voted for Adamkus last time did not come to vote at all," Kubilius said.

Kubilius, noting that almost all major Lithuanian political parties, from the ruling Social Democrats to the conservative opposition, formally supported Adamkus, also said the election illustrates the fact that the Lithuanian political system is "not mature in the European sense."

Bielinis said the problem may be bigger than the proper functioning of Lithuania's political parties. "The weakest link in the Lithuanian political system is the society itself. The civic society is very weak in our country," Bielinis said.

Bielinis said the Lithuanian political system was created only a decade ago and a majority of voters were born during the Soviet occupation. For them, Adamkus, who has spent much of his life in the United States, was always a foreigner.