Nauseda Poised to Advance to Lithuania’s Presidential Election Run-Off

(Bloomberg) -- Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda won the first round of an election on Sunday, putting the outspoken critic of Russia’s Vladimir Putin closer to securing a second term as head of state.

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Nauseda took 44.5% of vote, while Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte came in second with 19.9%, the Election Committee said on its website. Falling short of 50%, the two rivals will face each other in a run-off on May 26.

Voters in the Baltic state of 2.8 million went to the polls amid mounting fears over Russian aggression and a protracted conflict in Ukraine. Nauseda, who has gained attention among Western leaders for his hard line against Kremlin war aims, has led in surveys with solid public backing, particularly in rural areas and among more conservative voters.

“I’m prepared to steadily seek victory in the second round and I believe I’ll be successful,” Nauseda said on the election night. “I’m thankful for the strong support from the people. I want to continue work for another five years.”

The Lithuanian president is responsible for foreign and defense policy and has limited powers over domestic issues, but can veto legislation, appoint judges, central bankers and other officials. The head of state also grants the mandate to lead the government and represents the country at European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization summits.

For the country’s voters, 59-year-old Nauseda has steadily aligned his agenda around traditional and family values in his five years in power — marking a contrast with Simonyte, 49, who has advocated a more inclusive approach on issues such as LGBTQ rights.

But Russia’s war in Ukraine and the looming threat of Lithuania’s vast neighbor to the east have dominated the presidential campaign. In televised debates ahead of the contest, Nauseda and his challengers were queried on whether they had survival kits at home and if they would flee into exile in case of an invasion.

‘Boots on the Ground’, China

More than three decades after the country, along with Latvia and Estonia, reclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union, the EU member state has hosted the biggest military drills in its history. The exercises involved curfews in the country’s two largest cities earlier in the week.

Nauseda has been a leading voice calling for NATO troops to be deployed in the Baltics, the military alliance’s eastern flank. Germany has solidified plans to expand its presence in the country to a permanent brigade of as many as 5,000 troops over the next three years.

“We need boots on the ground,” Nauseda told Bloomberg News in an interview ahead of a NATO summit he hosted in Vilnius.

Simonyte, who’s led the government government since 2020, has drawn recognition for defying pressure from China after Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a trade office in Vilnius. That triggered a backlash from Beijing, which blocked trade, removed the Baltic state from its customs system and canceled Lithuanian diplomats’ identity cards.

Read More: Fear of War With Russia Haunts Lithuania: Year of Elections

Nauseda last week called for improved relations with China after Taiwan fallout. While he views setting up the trade outpost as “positive in principle,” the representative office should adopt the word Taipei rather than Taiwan in line with international standards in a bid to defuse simmering tensions with Beijing, he said.

“The adjustment could serve as a signal from Lithuania to normalize diplomatic relations with China,” Nauseda told Baltic News Service.

(Updates with vote count in the second paragraph.)

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