VILNIUS, Lithuania – Lithuanians exasperated with economic hardship were poised to hand a stunning victory to a populist party led by a disgraced Russia-born millionaire, early results and an exit poll after Sunday's election show, setting the stage for a coalition with an impeached president and Social Democrats.
The opposition Labor Party, led by Viktor Uspaskich, a man widely known as the "pickle king" for having made his fortune selling jarred pickles, was leading with 26 percent of the vote after more than 37 percent of precincts counted.
The Social Democrats, also in the opposition, were second with 19 percent. Order and Justice, a populist party led by Rolandas Paksas, who as president was impeached in 2004 for violating the Constitution and abuse of office, was fourth with 9 percent.
All three parties campaigned on strident criticism of the ruling conservative coalition that took office four years ago at the start of Lithuania's debilitating economic crisis and was forced to raise taxes and cut expenses to ward off bankruptcy — austerity measures that provoked a voter backlash.
Leaders of the three opposition parties were meeting early Monday to hash over 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.
Regardless, a Labor Party victory in the party-list phase would signify a tremendous comeback for Uspaskich, a member of the European Parliament who is 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.
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.
The conservative Homeland Union led by Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius was third in the ongoing vote count with some 10.6 percent support.
Lithuania, which is just emerging from the economic crisis, is still beset with high unemployment — over 13 percent — 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.
Lithuanians also voted in a referendum on whether to build a new nuclear power plant, which the ruling coalition claims will help establish the country's energy independence.
Opposition lawmakers, including the Social Democrats, have said the approximate $6 billion project is too expensive for the country of 3 million people.