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Politics

An election with no campaign in Lithuania

On May 11, Lithuanians voted for their new president. Chances are it'll be the same woman who is in office since 2009: Dalia Grybauskaite. She's the hands-down favorite, in part since she has no serious competition.

It's a day like any other in Lithuania's capital: every now and then, the sun manages to break through the clouds and bathe Vilnius in cold, clear light. Tourists are taking cell phone pictures of each other in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus, and the market women in the Hales Turgaviete are trading gossip.

But in this case, business as usual is cause for concern. There are hardly any election posters, campaign ads or booths where party members hand out balloons or pens - even though presidential elections in Lithuania are set for this Sunday (11.05.2014).

"I've never seen anything like this before," Lithuania's former president Valdas Adamkus said. "There hasn't been an election campaign if you ask me. Even the so-called TV-debates were a joke: is it a debate if candidates introduce their programs one after another without discussing them at all?"

Independent frontrunner

Grybauskaite on a Navy ship. (Photo: R. Dačkus)

Grybauskaite demonstrating her strength on a rare campaign trip to visit the Navy

There are seven candidates trying to become president, a decision which the 2.5 million Lithuanian voters will make directly. The front-runner is the current president, independent Dalia Grybauskaite. In newspaper polls, she is in the lead with 40 percent of the votes. The other candidates from the governing coalition, Social Democrat Zigmantas Balcytis and Arturas Paulauskas from the Workers Party, are far behind with around 10 percent each.

"The parties in Lithuania and the political system are in crisis," Vytautas Bruveris, political scientist and columnist at the daily newspaper "Lietuvos rytas," said. "For more than 10 years, they have not been able to groom new leading politicians. The parties not only suffer from a lack of personalities, but also from a lack of political programs, ideas and a lack of drive for important reforms."

Strong-willed

That's why Grybauskaite can afford sticking with a small campaign with hardly any posters or TV ads. As the current president, she has the stage whenever she wants. Critics used to accuse her of not mingling with the population enough. So, in the past year, she spent more time with everyday people. During the traditional Uzgavenes carnival in February, she toured the sausage and pancakes booths and posed with dressed-up partiers and teenagers.

But it's obvious President Grybauskaite feels much more comfortable when she's is in a room with the political elite: leading EU and NATO figures.

Campaign poster in Vilnius. (Photo: Vytenė Stašaitytė/ DW)

They do exist - a rare campaign poster in Vilnius

But her many supporters appreciate her in part because she's better among the bigwigs: "Her vision is a Lithuania that is integrated with the West, part of the euro zone and economically and politically independent from Russia," says a 35-year-old marketing specialist, who doesn't want to give his name told DW. "Unfortunately, the other candidates don't have such visions." He has already given his vote to Grybauskaite via absentee ballot.

Pensioneer Monika Jakubauskiene from Lithuania's second-largest city Kaunas likes the president's high level of education: "I think she's a strong person, who isn't easily manipulated. She knows foreign languages and has a good reputation - not just in Lithuania, but also abroad."

Not enough interest to win?

Bruveris is critical of the unswerving admiration the president enjoys among some. "The people absolutely adore Grybauskaite, but love is blind," the columnist said. According to Bruveris, voters forget to demand from their president what the other parties don't have either: a concrete program. He claims the president amends her opinion on important economic, social and foreign affairs questions depending on the political mood of the moment.

"Zigmantas Balcytis could possibly stand a realistic chance if he made an effort to present himself in a less boring manner," Bruveris said, adding that he believes the Social Democrat to be no less competent than the incumbent - and he has the strongest party behind him.

But according to the columnist, Balcytis, who has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009, is not all that interested in becoming president. The same goes for Waldemar Tomaszewski from the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, who's also an EP member, Bruveris said: "Their job is solely to run in order to profit in the European elections."

Re-election on the European level is the goal, and the debates are a means to remain present in people's minds and increase popularity.

Hoping for a runoff poll

Grybauskaite at an EU summit in March. (Photo: REUTERS/Laurent Dubrule)

Grybauskaite in her element at an EU summit in March

Arguably the only exciting question left is whether there will be a presidential runoff. It's not unthinkable. If a runoff is held, it would come on May 25 - the same day as the European elections. Political analysts expect some voters to act strategically, so that fellow citizens are compelled to participate in the European elections as well.

Grybauskaite's supporters, in particular, fall into this category, because their candidate is a staunch European. Monika Jakubauskiene, the retiree from Kaunas, says she'll vote for Grybauskaite - but only in the runoff poll. Before that, she'll stay home: "I believe it's important to prevent the populist parties from getting into the European parliament."

At the last European election in 2009, 21 percent of Lithuanians voted. The only other country that saw a smaller voter turnout was Slovakia with 19.6 percent. If the current president has a say, this is about to change. But on Vilnius' streets there are hardly campaign posters for the European election either - just business as usual.

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