Lithuania's Nauseda wins first round of presidential election

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) -Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda appeared on track to secure his second and final term in office after the first round of voting on Sunday, following a campaign focusing on security concerns across the Baltics amid Russia's war against Ukraine.

Nauseda, 59, won 44% of the votes cast, electoral commission data showed, short of the 50% he needed to ensure re-election in the first round.

A run-off will be held on May 26 against Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, 49, in second place with 20% of ballots.

Speaking to reporters after voting ended, Nauseda pledged to keep up pressure on the country's western allies for increased military support for Ukraine.

"Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy already said it all. They don't need our declarations of good will, they are of no use in a fight – they need air defences ... Until they have air defences, Ukraine will stay vulnerable," he said.

Across the region, voters are worried the Baltics, once ruled from Moscow but now members of the NATO military alliance and the European Union, could be the targets of Russian aggression in the future.

Just over half of Lithuanians believe a Russian attack is possible or even very likely, an ELTA/Baltijos Tyrimai poll found. Lithuanian intelligence said in March Russia was on track to strengthen its military capabilities along its border with NATO.

Moscow has regularly dismissed Western suggestions that it might consider an attack on a NATO member as nonsense.


Still, tensions are running high in the region. Most of the candidates running in Sunday's election, including Simonyte and Nauseda, have told the national broadcaster they keep food stockpiles at home in case of a military conflict.

"I am doing all I can to make sure it will not be needed," Nauseda said during a televised debate.

Both Nauseda and Simonyte support increasing defence spending to at least 3% of Lithuania's gross domestic product, from the 2.75% planned for this year, to pay for the modernisation of its army and infrastructure to support a brigade of German troops, and their families, that will be deployed in Lithuania and combat-ready from 2027.

While agreeing on Russia policy, the two top candidates differ on issues such as same-sex civil partnerships, which Nauseda opposes, and have a history of acrimonious bickering and refusing to speak to each other.

Lithuania's president has a semi-executive role, which includes heading the armed forces and chairing the supreme defence and national security policy body, and represents the country at the European Union and NATO summits.

In tandem with the government, the president sets foreign and security policy, can veto laws and has a say in the appointment of key officials such as judges, the chief prosecutor, the chief of defence and head of the central bank.

In 2019, Simonyte, a former finance minister, narrowly defeated Nauseda in the first round of the presidential election. Nauseda prevailed in the run-off with 66% of the vote.

Simonyte is also facing a tough test in a general election this October, as her centre-right government parties trail in the polls.

Nauseda posed for cameras on election night surrounded by the leadership of the Social Democrats, the likely main challengers for Simonyte at the general election.

"I think it will be easy for us to find common ground," he said about the possiblity of Social Democrats winning.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Chris Reese and Stephen Coates)