World Bulletin / News Desk
Lithuania's leftwing government is fighting for survival in the first round of a general election Sunday, clouded by an exodus of workers fueling a demographic crisis in the Baltic eurozone state.
The exodus -- much of it to Britain -- is a major campaign issue after the population shrank from 3.5 million in 2001 to 2.9 million in 2015, with further declines feared.
Since Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, nearly half the estimated 370,000 people who left went to the United Kingdom, where uproar over eastern European immigration was seen a key factor in the Brexit vote to leave the bloc.
Candidates across Lithuania's political spectrum are now struggling to address widespread frustration over the economic inequalities that have triggered a tide of emigration to richer Western Europe.
Wage growth and job creation have become key rallying cries for all parties on the campaign trail.
Leader of the Social Democrats, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, has promised to increase the minimum wage further.
But a controversial labour law overhaul aimed at boosting employment could eat into his party's slim lead in the opinion polls.
"All politicians must tell those people who left: forgive us for our indifference, our failures, we expelled you from Lithuania," Saulius Skvernelis, a former national police chief challenging Butkevicius, said in a recent TV debate.
Conservative leader Gabrielius Landsbergis has vowed to draw foreign investors from Scandinavia, Britain and Germany to create jobs.
"We must boost regional investment. We also want to use EU funds to improve local business productivity," he told AFP in an interview.
Just a 50 minute drive from the vibrant capital Vilnius, the town of Kaisiadorys is hard hit by emigration.
Over the quarter-century since communism's demise, its population has shrunk by 25 percent to 10,000 -- roughly the number of Lithuanians in Peterborough, eastern England -- and is now plagued by labour shortages.
"We have big poultry farms and meat processing plants but they have to bring in workers from other towns and villages," Mayor Vytenis Tomkus told AFP.
Florist Regina Kaseliene, 50, insists local salaries are too low to keep her two children at home.
"My daughter left for France five years ago and my son went to Norway last year. He wants to return, but not before he saves up for an apartment," she said.
Standing beside a window plastered with campaign posters, she could not hide her frustration with politicians.
"The government just doesn't care that young people are unable to get normal jobs after their studies," she sighed.
Lithuania's economy has staged a remarkable recovery since taking a nosedive during the 2008-9 global financial crisis, and government forecasts suggest it will grow by 2.5 percent this year.
But average monthly wages of just over 600 euros ($670) after taxes are among the lowest in the EU, while inequality and poverty rates remain comparatively high.
"Economic indicators show improvement, but it is felt only by a small portion of the people, and that creates a sense of injustice," Audra Sipaviciene, head of the local office of the International Organization for Migration, told AFP.
Some analysts suggest that Britain's efforts to control EU immigration and a post-Brexit rise in hate crimes may help curb the exodus from Lithuania.
But others warn that, determined to stay in Britain, some Lithuanians may seek British passports, automatically forcing them to give up their Lithuanian ones.
But some migrants are already coming home.
After working for four years in England, 23-year-old Egidijus Grinis now earns his living as an Uber driver in Vilnius and plans to set up his own business within two years.
"I missed my family and friends and decided to return to study electromechanics," Grinis told AFP, saying he's aiming to set up a fleet of electric taxis.
The leftist Butkevicius faces a strong challenge from Landsbergis's conservatives and Skvernelis running for the Lithuanian Peasant and Green's Union (LPGU), a left-of-centre party popular in rural areas.
Up to five other parties could also pass the five-percent threshold required to enter Lithuania's 141-member parliament.
Seventy lawmakers are elected by proportional representation from party lists and 71 in single-member constituencies, where final run-off rounds are due on October 23.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 07 Ekim 2016, 09:46