Though the disputed independence referenda in Ukraine’s troubled eastern oblasts attracted considerably more international attention, Lithuania also went to the polls on May 11 to elect a president.
Dalia Grybauskaitė, the incumbent since 2009, easily led the first round with 46.61% of the vote, just shy of an outright victory, and she is almost certain to win reelection in the May 25 runoff against Zigmantas Balčytis, a member of the European Parliament, a former finance minister and, briefly for a month in 2006, acting prime minster. Balčytis is the candidate of the governing center-left Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija (LSDP, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania).
The runoff will coincide with elections for the European Parliament, where Lithuania holds 11 of its 751 seats.
Balčytis, a relatively uncharismatic candidate, won just 13.84% of the vote, however, only narrowly edging out Artūras Paulauskas, the candidate of the Darbo Partija (DP, Labour Party), who 12.20%.
Grybauskaitė, who lists the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher among her political heroes, has been dubbed, somewhat unimaginatively, as Lithuania’s ‘Iron Lady,’ after amassing one of the most prolific political careers of any figure in post-Soviet Lithuania. A former finance official, Grybauskaitė served as Lithuania’s representative to the European Commission between 2004 and 2009, for much of that time as the commissioner for financial planning and the budget. As commissioner, Grybauskaitė worked to reduce agricultural subsidies from the European budget and she was responsible for passing the first such budget that held funding for the Common Agricultural Policy to below 50% of European funds for the first time in European Union history.
Upon returning to Lithuania, she easily won a first-round election running as a conservative independent against token opposition. Though Lithuania’s parliamentary government means that the prime minister is responsible for most of Lithuanian domestic policy, Grybauskaitė holds a key role in setting foreign policy. She has championed Lithuania’s place in the heart of the European Union, the eurozone and in NATO, and she has fiercely resisted Russian designs on influencing its ‘near-abroad,’ especially during the most recent security crisis over the Russian annexation of Crimea and possible designs to influence eastern Ukraine.
Due to her respected profile, Grybauskaitė can often influence domestic politics as well. For example, following the most recent October 2012 parliamentary elections, Labour won the greatest number of seats in the Lithuanian Seimas, its unicameral parliament. But because of the relatively pro-Russian reputation of the Labour Party, and because of accusations of vote-rigging and corruption against its Russian-born leader Viktor Uspaskich, the LSDP took the lead in forming Lithuania’s current government under prime minister Algirdas Butkevičius. Grybauskaitė has long been wary of Uspaskich and Labour, and she tried unsuccessfully to intervene in the 2012 post-election talks to convince Lithuania’s other political parties to unite and exclude Labour from government.
In any event, her likely reelection later this month will secure Lithuania’s influential security role among the Baltic states.