Lithuanians vote in presidential runoff amid Russia fears


Vilnius, May 26 (AFP/APP):Lithuania's heads of state and government faced off on Sunday in round two of the presidential election, as the Baltic nation prioritises defence and security amid fears over neighbouring Russia. 
              Both candidates agree that the NATO and EU member of 2.8 million people should boost defence spending to counter the perceived threat, and to that end the government recently proposed a tax increase. 
              Former banker and incumbent Gitanas Nauseda, 60, is the heavy favourite to win another five-year term, saying he expects to receive 75 percent of votes. 
              There have been no opinion polls since the first round, when Nauseda won 44 percent of the ballot and Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte 20 percent. 
              Simonyte, the 49-year-old candidate of the ruling conservatives, is running for president again after losing to Nauseda in the last presidential ballot.
              He took to social media on Sunday to urge voters to wait for the results in the gardens of the presidential palace, which led the electoral commission to warn of a possible violation of the rule of silence during election time.
              The president's spokesman Ridas Jasiulionis said Nauseda would not remove his Facebook post as it did not constitute campaigning.
              The Lithuanian president steers defence and foreign policy, attending EU and NATO summits, but must consult with the government and parliament on appointing the most senior officials. 
              While the candidates agree on defence, they share diverging views on Lithuania's relations with China, which have been strained for years over Taiwan.

              - 'Threat of war' -

              Olga Sokolovska, a kindergarten worker, said she had voted for Nauseda.
              "I like his ideas, his approach to the family and the way he deals with the public," the 34-year-old said.
              Fifty-three-year-old artist Gediminas Zilys, voted Simonyte. 
              "I understand that she will not win, but because support gives people confidence, we must vote for her to show that she has a lot of supporters," he said.
              "I like that she is categorical," said Saida, who also voted Simonyte.
              "Maybe she's more confrontational, but she would better stand her ground than Nauseda," said the marketing specialist, 37, who gave only her first name.
              But pensioner Ausra Vysniauskiene preferred Nauseda. 
              "He's an intelligent man, he speaks many languages, he's educated, he's a banker," the 67-year-old told AFP. 
              "I want men to lead, especially when the threat of war is so big." 
              Lithuania is a significant donor to Ukraine, which has been battling Russia since the 2022 invasion, and is already a big defence spender, with a military budget equal to 2.75 percent of GDP.
              Lithuania intends to purchase tanks and additional air defence systems, and to host a German brigade, as Berlin plans to complete the stationing of around 5,000 troops by 2027.
              Vilnius fears it could be next in the crosshairs if Moscow were to win its war against Ukraine.
              - Tension over Taiwan - 

              The uneasy relationship between Nauseda and Simonyte's conservatives has at times triggered foreign policy debates, most notably on Lithuania's relations with China.
              Bilateral ties turned tense in 2021, when Vilnius allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy under the island's name -- a departure from the common diplomatic practice of using the name of the capital Taipei to avoid angering Beijing.
              China, which considers self-ruled Taiwan a part of its territory, downgraded diplomatic relations with Vilnius and blocked its exports, leading some Lithuanian politicians to urge a restoration of relations for the sake of the economy.
              Nauseda sees the need to change the name of the representative office, while Simonyte pushes back against it.