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Austerity-hit Lithuania changes course

According to exit polls, austerity-weary Lithuanians have voted to remove the incumbent center-right government. The center-left Social Democrats had promised to raise the minimum wage and hike taxes on the rich.

Lithuanian voters cast their ballots on Sunday, with exit polls indicating that the ex-Soviet Baltic state would install a center-left government after years of austerity.

The polls gave the Labor Party 19.8 percent and their likely coalition partners, the Social Democrats, 17.8 percent. The ruling Homeland Union was on 16.7 percent.

Lithuania, a nation of 3 million people, was hit hard by the financial crisis in 2008. The country's economy plummeted by 15 percent in 2009, when an economic bubble - financed by easy credit largely from Scandinavian banks - bottomed out.

In response, Lithuanians threw out the Social Democratic government and elected the Homeland Union party of the current incumbent prime minister, Andrius Kubilius. The center-right coalition implemented draconian austerity measures, even rationing fuel for police cars and only turning on every other street light in the capital, Vilnius.

Lithuania has now returned to growth and has been heralded by eurozone members as a model for how Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain can overcome their debt problems. The Baltic nation's economy grew by 1.5 percent in 2010 and expanded by 5.8 percent in 2011, one of the fastest rates in the 27-member European Union.

'Government responsible for everyone'

But the austerity measures have left a bitter taste in the mouths of some voters.

Watch video 01:31

Lithuanians vote in general election

"They carried out an experiment on us," Ruslan, a taxi driver in Vilnius, told the news agency Reuters. "They cut pensions in half; people left the country … Young people have to live with their grandparents."

The Social Democrats' leader, Algirdas Butkevicius, had accused the incumbent conservative-liberal coalition of leaving the people at the mercy of the free market.

"Their ideology leaves a person to their own fate and to the markets which, it claims, solve everything," Butkevicius said. "We say the government needs to be responsible for everyone: for the sick, the old, the young who cannot find work."

Butkevicius has said he wants Lithuania to adopt the euro in 2015, a year later than scheduled. That would allow the country to temporarily forgo the eurozone's tighter deficit rules.

slk,mkg/rc (AFP, Reuters)

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