Lithuanians vote in a presidential election as anxieties rise over Russia and the war in Ukraine

Lithuanians have voted in a presidential election at a time when Russian gains on the battlefield in Ukraine are fueling greater fears about Moscow’s intentions

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuanians voted in a presidential election on Sunday at a time when Russian gains on the battlefield in Ukraine are fueling greater fears about Moscow's intentions, particularly in the strategically important Baltic region.

The popular incumbent, Gitanas Nausėda, was favored to win another five-year term in office. But there were eight candidates running in all, making it difficult for him or any other candidate to muster the 50% of the votes needed to win outright on Sunday. In that case, a runoff will be held on May 26.

Polls closed at 8 p.m. local time (1700 GMT). Initial voter turnout was 59.4%, higher than in the previous election in 2019, the Central Electoral Commission said. Results were expected early Monday.

The president's main tasks in Lithuania's political system are overseeing foreign and security policy, and acting as the supreme commander of the armed forces. That adds importance to the position in the relatively small nation given that it is located strategically on NATO's eastern flank as tensions rise between Russia and the West over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea is sandwiched between Lithuania to the north and east, and Poland to the south. There is great concern in Lithuania, and in neighboring Latvia and Estonia, about Russian troops' latest gains in northeastern Ukraine.

All three Baltic states declared independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and took a determined westward course, joining both the European Union and NATO.

Nausėda is a moderate conservative who turns 60 a week after Sunday’s election. One of his main challengers is Ingrida Šimonytė, 49, the current prime minister and former finance minister, whom he beat in a runoff in 2019 with 66.5% of the votes.

Another contender is Ignas Vėgėlė, a populist lawyer who gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic opposing restrictions and vaccines.

Nauseda's first term in office ends at the beginning of July.

A referendum was also on the ballot Sunday. It asked whether the constitution should be amended to allow dual citizenship for hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians living abroad.

Lithuanian citizens who adopt another nationality currently must give up their Lithuanian citizenship, which doesn't bode well for the Baltic nation whose population has fallen from 3.5 million in 1990 to 2.8 million today.

For the first time, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe turned down an invitation by Lithuania to observe the election.

The Lithuanian government wanted to exclude monitors from Russia and Belarus, accusing the two nations — both members of the 57-member organization — of being threats to its political and electoral processes.

The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said Lithuania was breaking the rules it signed up to when it joined the organization. It said observers don’t represent their countries’ governments, that they must sign a code of conduct pledging political neutrality and if they break the rules they are no longer allowed to continue as observers.

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