Female president for Lithuania

May 18, 2009 12:00 am

, VILNIUS, May 18 – EU budget chief Dalia Grybauskaite won a landslide presidential election victory in her homeland Lithuania, making her the Baltic nation’s first woman head of state, official results showed.

"I would like to congratulate the Lithuanian people on their decision and I think that with their continued belief in me, we can together make it out of hardship as far better, and prosperous, people," Grybauskaite said as the scale of her win became evident.

"The taste of victory carries with it the weight of responsibility," the 53-year-old, currently the European Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget, told reporters and cheering supporters.

Results from the national electoral commission from Sunday’s ballot showed Grybauskaite , who ran as an independent candidate, had an unassailable mandate.

She obtained a resounding 69.04 percent of the vote in the seven-candidate first round, avoiding the need for a run-off on June 7.

Her nearest challenger, Social Democrat Algirdas Butkevicius, a 50-year-old former government minister, was far behind with 11.85 percent and conceded defeat.

Turnout among the country’s 2.7 million registered voters was 51.67 percent.

Grybauskaite will become Lithuania’s fifth president since it broke free from Soviet rule in 1990. Although it has never had a female president, the country first post-independence prime minister was a woman: Kazimira Prunskiene, now 66, who also stood unsuccessfully for president.

Grybauskaite, who has a martial arts black belt, a reputation for straight talking, and says her political models include former British premier Margaret Thatcher, has pledged to pull her homeland "out of the political and economic shadows."

She has been a member of the Brussels-based executive European Commission since 2004 since Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004.

From that position, she regularly crossed swords with Lithuania’s Social Democrats, who lost office in a general election last October, claiming they squandered a now-defunct economic boom and failed to prepare for the ever-deepening recession.

Grybauskaite won the backing of the ruling Conservatives, who did not put up a candidate. She has given broad approval to their austerity measures, but has warned she has a critical eye on their government, which the president has the power to dismiss.

The Lithuanian president’s main role is to steer foreign policy, and Grybauskaite has said she wants to try and soften the strong language often directed towards Vilnius’s former master Moscow. But she has also said that the economic crisis calls for a more active role on the home front.

"She is coming with a very clear message of change," Conservative Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said.

Grybauskaite entered the race in February, after public anger over Lithuania’s deepening economic crisis and ingrained distrust in politicians erupted into a riot outside parliament.

"My conscience as a citizen wouldn’t let me stay in Brussels," she told AFP ahead of the election. "I did what I could from Brussels, criticising and commenting, but it wasn’t effective enough."

Grybauskaite studied and taught political economy during the Soviet era and began her public career after independence.

She was named deputy finance minister from 1999 to 2000, deputy foreign minister in 2000, and finance minister from 2001 to 2004.

Sunday’s five other candidates lagged even farther behind: Valentinas Mazuronis, of the populist Order and Justice party, scored 6.17 percent; Valdemar Tomasevski, leader of Lithuania’s Polish-speaking minority, 4.74 percent; Prunskiene, of the National Farmers’ Party, 3.91 percent; Loreta Grauziniene, of the populist Labour Party, 3.62 percent; and independent Ceslovas Jezerskas, 0.67 percent.


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