- Associated Press - Thursday, October 6, 2016

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) - Lithuania is just emerging from one of Europe’s worst recessions, has a shrinking population and one of the world’s highest suicide rates.

Politicians, however, appear to be ignoring many of those issues as the Baltic nation prepares to vote Sunday in the first round of choosing a new Parliament. Political scandals and vows to raise living standards are dominating the election campaign.

“This time it’s not about programs or ideas, but promises and scandals,” said analyst Lauras Bielinis from the Vilnius International Relations Institute. “People are concerned about rising prices, low wages and everyday living, so parties are competing who will promise more and who will dig up more dirt on each other.”

Opinion polls are predicting victory for the ruling Social Democrats and a scattered support for the 14 parties vying for the 141 seats.

A survey last month predicted 16 percent support for Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius’ Social Democrats, four points ahead of a new center-left coalition, the Peasant and Green Party, which is challenging with promises of more radical social and economic reforms.

The main opposition party, the conservative Homeland Union-Christian Democrats, led by Gabrielius Landsbergis, a grandson of Lithuania’s independence hero, was given third spot - with 9 percent support - in the survey by the Vilmorus polling agency. It interviewed 1,035 people in Sept. 2-10 for the poll, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Estonia, regained independence after splitting from the Soviet Union in 1990 and has since lost more than a quarter of its pre-independence population of 3.7 million to emigration as people search for jobs elsewhere in Europe. It is a member of the 28-nation European Union, and was further hit hard by the global economic recession in 2009-2010.

The country also has Europe’s highest suicide rate - 28 people per 100,000 - in 2012, according to the latest figures by the World Health Organization.

Analysts say as many as 20 percent of voters are still undecided - and recent scandals may swing them.

Last month, Agriculture Minister Virginija Baltraitiene, accused of mishandling food quality issues, managed to survive a no-confidence motion, while fellow Cabinet member Defense Minister Juozas Olekas survived a no-confidence vote over allegations that the army had paid astronomical prices for kitchen utensils.

So far, the scandals don’t seem to have affected the Social Democrats, who are pledging to continue social reforms and have tried to frighten voters with reminders of the hardships after the conservatives came to power in 2008.

But one previously popular party, the Liberal Union, is virtually out of the race after its leader, Eligijus Masiulis, was forced to resign his seat in Parliament and quit the party after being charged with corruption. Now the party’s popularity has dwindled below the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament.

After Sunday’s ballot, a second round of voting will be held Oct. 23 in constituencies where no candidate wins a majority in the first round.

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