VILNIUS, Lithuania – Lithuanians are expected to deal a double-blow to the incumbent conservative government in national elections Sunday by handing a victory to opposition leftists and populists and saying no to a new nuclear power plant that supporters claim would boost the country's energy independence.
Exhausted after years of budget cuts, high unemployment, and declining living standards, Lithuanians were likely to opt for either the Social Democrats or Order and Justice, a populist party led by a former president impeached eight years ago, according to pre-election polls.
The government of Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius took over at the end of 2008 and was immediately forced to cut spending and raise taxes to fend off a crushing economic decline that followed years of robust growth. Though Lithuania has avoided defaulting on its debts, its citizens have felt the financial pinch and seen their standard of living fall sharply.
Despite an uptick in economic activity last year, unemployment was 13.3 percent in the second quarter. Tens of thousands of people have fled the country to seek jobs elsewhere in the European Union, leading to one of the sharpest demographic declines in all of Europe.
"Some call it austerity measures, but Kubilius' methods seem like genocide to me. What they did to our country will take years to restore. The tax system is crazy...people are fleeing the country. This must stop before it's too late," said Vytautas Klimka, 65, outside a voting station in downtown Vilnius.
Though 141 seats are up for grabs, only half are determined by party lists, while the others are single-mandate districts that, in the absence of a majority winner, will require a run-off vote between the top two finalists on Oct. 28. Only then will a clear picture emerge as to what the next coalition could look like.
Lithuanians will also express their opinion on whether the next government should proceed with plans to build a new nuclear power plant, one that would replace a Soviet-era facility that closed in 2009.
Although the referendum is non-binding, a large "no" vote could torpedo plans to build the plant along with neighbors Estonia and Latvia.
Supporters say the new plant, which would be built by Japan's Hitachi, is needed to ensure the region's energy independence. But many Lithuanians fear that the project, which has an estimated 5 billion euro ($6 billion) price tag, will shackle the country of 3 million people with overbearing debt.
Others have safety concerns, especially in light of the earthquake and tsunami disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant last year.
"I do not want my country to become a playground for Lithuanian and Japanese nuclear business games. Let them have their own Fukushimas. We had already had one of our own — a disaster in Chernobyl," Danute Cekanaviciene, a 52-year-old designer, said in reference to the 1986 Soviet nuclear accident.
Lithuania, an ex-Soviet state, relies predominantly on Russian gas for energy. Energy prices increased 20 percent earlier this year, and utilities have warned that this winter will be the most expensive yet.
The most recent poll, which was taken in May, showed that two-thirds of Lithuanians opposed building a new atomic power plant.