Lithuanians have begun voting in a tight general election. The eurozone state of 2.9 million people has lost large numbers of workers to wealthier EU members - the bulk of them to the United Kingdom - and has one of the world's highest suicide rates.
"Changes are coming," Gabrielius Landsbergis, leader of the right-wing Homeland Union, said during Thursday's debate, addressing emigres and potential emigres. "You don't need to pack your suitcases. You can return. Lithuania needs you."
Since Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, 370,000 people have left the country. Expected to grow up to 2.5 percent this year, Lithuania's economy staged a remarkable recovery after taking a nosedive during the 2008-09 global financial meltdown. However, the country has some of the European Union's lowest average monthly wages, at just over 600 euros ($670) after taxes, and inequality and poverty remain comparatively high.
Up to 2.5 million registered voters will elect 70 lawmakers by proportional representation and 71 in single-member constituencies. Runoffs would occur October 23.
Eight parties could clear the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament. In polls, the Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, held 15.6 percent support. Butkevicius has promised to raise the minimum wage and public sector salaries, but his government's new law to simplify firings could eat into his party's lead.
The enviro-agrarian centrist Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union followed with 14 percent, meaning that the party could emerge as the power broker in coalition talks. Running for the farmer-backed alliance, the former police chief and political newcomer Saulius Skvernelis blames former governments for failing to stem the labor exodus. Ramunas Karbauskis, one of Lithuania's biggest farmland owners, leads the party, which currently holds just a single seat in the parliament.
Formerly considered the main opposition party, the Homeland Union trailed with 13.7 percent backing, the pollsters found. The union's last reign, from 2008 to 2012, is remembered as a time of hardship and scarcity.
President Dalia Grybauskaite, often referred to as Lithuania's Steel Magnolia, said she had voted "for changes" this week - an apparent swipe at the incumbent government.
Though many in Lithuania and the Baltics have raised alarms as Russia moves its arsenal closer to the tiny country's borders for the second time in less than a century, voters have worried more about their wallets than security.Still, NATO has beefed up its presence in the Baltic state, which has been independent for just 26 years - a move that all major parties endorse.
mkg/jlw (AFP, AP)