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Exit poll: conservatives ahead in Lithuania vote

Sunday, October 12, 2008

By LIUDAS DAPKUS and GARY PEACH, Associated Press Writer

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VILNIUS, Lithuania — 

A conservative opposition party won the most votes in Lithuania's parliamentary election, but strong support for populist groups set the stage for tricky coalition talks, an exit poll and partial results showed.

The vote, which came as the Baltic country's economy slumps after years of spectacular growth, appeared to spell the end for Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas' centrist coalition government.

Thorny talks between party leaders, including ousted ex-president Rolandas Paksas and Russian-born millionaire Viktor Uspaskich, lie ahead. A runoff vote for single-mandate constituencies in two weeks.

The exit poll, released on Lithuania's TV3 network moments after voting ended, showed the conservative Homeland Union winning 21 percent of the vote, and two allied populist parties _ led by Paksas and Uspaskich _ mustering a combined 25 percent.

Kirkilas' Social Democrats received 14 percent of the vote, while their four partners in the coalition government failed to break the 5 percent barrier to remain in Parliament, according to the survey by the Rait pollster.

Conservative leader Andrius Kubilius said the result sent a "strong signal" that Lithuanian voters wanted change.

"We are ready to take responsibility and expect the president's offer to start forming a new Cabinet," Kubilius told cheering colleagues at the party's headquarters.

Partial results released with nearly half of precincts counted showed narrower margins between the top parties.

The final outcome was unclear because the survey only included the party list vote, which covers 70 of the 141 seats in Parliament. The remaining 71 seats are decided in individual races in single-mandate constituencies, many of which will require a runoff on Oct. 26.

The Sunday vote also featured a nonbinding referendum on whether to keep a Soviet-era nuclear plant operating beyond its scheduled closure in 2009. The Central Election Commission said Sunday it appeared the referendum could be invalid due to low voter turnout.

The Chernobyl-style nuclear plant's design flaws scare EU members, who insist that it be closed on its scheduled date in December 2009. Many Lithuanians claim that shutting down the Ignalina plant, which gives them energy independence, would leave them vulnerable to Russia, an unreliable energy supplier.

Paksas, a stunt pilot and former president who was ousted in 2004, wouldn't rule out any possible partners in coalition talks despite strong rivalry. His Order and Justice party was second in the exit poll, with 14 percent.

"If I had a choice, we would not work together with the conservatives or Social Democrats, who are responsible for this disorder in Lithuania," he said. "But if voters decide those parties deserve to be in government, we may be negotiating with those parties."

Paksas and Uspaskich, who leads the Labor Party, could form the backbone of a populist coalition that would likely talk tough to the European Union on the nuclear plant and improve relations with neighboring Russia. The Labor Party was in fifth spot in both the exit poll and partial vote count.

TV3 said the poll included more than 4,600 respondents and had a 1.5 percent margin of error.

Lithuania, which regained independence in 1991 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, experienced an economic boom after joining the EU in 2004. However, the economy overheated and like its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania is now struggling with high inflation and slumping growth.

Paksas was ousted in 2004 for violating the Constitution and abuse of office, making him the first European head of state to be impeached and removed from office. Though he is constitutionally barred from occupying public office, he could wield tremendous influence on the sidelines.

Uspaskich was forced to resign as economy minister after coming under investigation for a conflict of interest case involving Russia, where he was born.

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