VILNIUS — Austerity-weary voters in Lithuania look set to evict the Baltic state's four-year-old Conservative government in a general election and hand power to the left.
Opinion polls showed Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius' Conservative party and its Liberal allies facing punishment by the electorate despite a recovery from one of the world's deepest recessions.
Voters in the European Union nation are expected to swing behind the centre-left Social Democrats led by Algirdas Butkevicius, and the leftwing populist Labour party of controversial Russian-born ex-minister and businessman Viktor Uspaskich.
Butkevicius, a former finance minister, is tipped to become premier in a coalition with Labour.
The left pledges to raise the minimum wage and introduce a progressive income tax, but Butkevicius has also underlined his prudent credentials.
He quit as finance minister in 2005 in part because the then Social Democrat-led government did not close the gap between spending and revenue.
Defeat by the Social Democrats would be a bitter blow for Kubilius, who beat them in the last election in 2008 and is the only Lithuanian premier to survive a full term.
In 2008, voters heeded his message that the Social Democrats failed to rein in breakneck growth fuelled by credit and wage hikes and left Lithuania ill-prepared for the global crisis.
Kubilius was also premier in 1999-2000 when Lithuania was lashed by the economic meltdown in neighbouring Russia. But the 2009 crisis was far deeper, with Lithuania's economy shrinking by 14.8 percent.
The Kubilius government launched spending cuts well beyond those of western members of the European Union, which Lithuania joined in 2004.
"This premier now is linked to the cuts in wages and pensions which many people felt personally," said analyst Ramunas Vilpisauskas, adding that Kubilius had been frank and never sought popularity.
Despite facing defeat, Kubilius is unbowed.
"If you want to come back to recovery, first of all you need to implement fiscal austerity measures, you need to bring back order into your financial system," he told AFP. "And we have the results."
The recovery began in 2010, with output expanding by 1.4 percent, before increasing to 6.0 percent in 2011, but analysts say too few voters feel the benefits. The government's growth forecast is a slower 2.5 percent this year and 3.0 percent in 2013.
Gloom has stoked emigration to western Europe, which still seems an option despite its economic woes. September data showed Lithuania's population was 2.98 million, its lowest in decades. In 2001, it was almost 3.5 million.
"I hope the new government will be better. What we've seen is emigration, wages cut, rocketing prices, corruption. I voted Labour, they should be given a chance to try," said Laima Ambrazeviciene, 52.
Conservative voter Ramute Bacinskiene, 65, disagreed.
"It's not so bad here, we have food, clothes. We don't have wars here, look what's happening around the world. I believe stability is very important," she said.
Seventy members of Lithuania's 141-seat parliament are elected by proportional representation from party lists. The remaining 71 are chosen in constituency races, with October 28 run-offs where no candidate won a majority.
The left also pledges to "reset" ties with Moscow, rocky since Lithuania seceded from the Soviet Union in 1990.
Tensions have spiked during a political and legal battle over alleged market abuses by Russian energy giant Gazprom, Lithuania's sole gas supplier.
Kubilius has striven to diversify energy supplies, amid problems since the 2009 closure of Lithuania's only nuclear power plant, a Soviet-era facility shut under the terms of its EU entry.
In tandem with Sunday's election, a non-binding referendum is being held on whether to continue plans to build a new atomic plant.
"I don't believe Lithuania is able to build the plant, and will go bankrupt. I am also against having such a dangerous facility on Lithuanian territory. Thirdly, I don't believe electricity will be cheaper if the plant is built," said voter Mindaugas, 30, declining to give his last name.
Polls close at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) on Sunday.
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