Front-runners Simonyte, Nauseda to meet in Lithuania presidential runoff, prime minister to resign

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VILNIUS (Reuters) – Pre-election favourites Ingrida Simonyte and Gitanas Nauseda will face off in the second round of Lithuania’s presidential election, as Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis conceded defeat in Sunday’s vote and said he would resign his post.

Lithuanians voted in large numbers in the contest to succeed outgoing President Dalia Grybauskaite, the Baltic nation’s “Iron Lady,” who was one of the European Union’s most outspoken critics of Russia.

With 85 percent of the ballots counted, Nauseda had 31 percent, Simonyte 29 percent and Skvernelis 21 percent, according to data on the website of the election authority.

Simonyte, 44, a former finance minister in a centre-right government, and Nauseda, 54, a former senior economist at a top bank, will compete in a May 26 runoff.

“I would like to be the president who initiates national agreements, to find solutions on many, many questions, which are very complicated and were not solved for many years, especially in education and healthcare,” Nauseda told reporters after the voting.

“My message in the second round will be that we need to care not only for big cities but also for smaller towns, so that we don’t have two Lithuanias, but one Lithuania, which is successful and strong,” Simonyte told reporters.

Skvernelis, 48, conceded defeat in front of disappointed supporters in the capital, Vilnius, and said he would resign as prime minister on July 12.

“I really believed I would get to the runoff, but the result shows that my expectations were too high,” he said.

“When I entered the election, I said that it will be an evaluation of my job as a prime minister. So there it is”.

Final results were expected later on Monday morning.

INEQUALITY, CORRUPION MAIN ISSUES

Still very popular, Grybauskaite, 63, is not eligible to run again after two terms. The top three candidates vying to succeed her had pledged to maintain a tough stance against Vilnius’ former Soviet master, as well as hefty military spending.

Five years after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine that sparked fears of further Russian aggression across Eastern Europe, the election campaign in Lithuania was dominated by voter anger over economic inequality and corruption.

Income inequality is among the highest in the European Union, second only to Bulgaria.

Lithuania’s president has a semi-executive role with a say in the appointment of officials such as judges, the chief prosecutor and head of the central bank. The president can veto laws, and in tandem with the government, sets foreign and security policy.

“What we need most is creation of jobs to retain people in Lithuania, to keep many from emigrating,” voter Mindaugas Milciunas said in Vilnius. “Because then, we would no longer lack qualified specialists, as we do now.”

Both Nauseda and Simonyte say tax income should be raised to fund more state spending, although Skvernelis has introduced a tax cut as a signature policy of his government.

“I try to appeal to people by saying, look, there are no simple answers, and there are many headwinds,” said Simonyte, the finance minister when the government cut public-sector wages and pensions in 2009 as a state default loomed.

“It’s complicated for a single party to take leadership (on state finances) because it knows it will be criticized by others for unpopular decisions. A president can show leadership and settle the debates,” she said.

Nauseda, a household name from his role as an economic commentator, said he would use the president’s position to help business expand in emerging markets, especially China and ask the government to increase revenues and better fund social services, such as pensions.

“Retirement is leading to poverty, because pensions are obviously too low,” Nauseda said in a recent debate, adding he wanted the budget for pensions to be raised to 10% of gross domestic product from 6.8%.

Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Writing by Johan Ahlander; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter CooneyOur Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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