VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuania's political newcomers, representing an agrarian union, claimed victory after Sunday's runoff in parliamentary elections as voters turned their backs on the ruling Social Democrats, blamed for being unable to revive a sluggish economy and held responsible for a sharp rise in prices following the adoption of the euro.
The Peasants and Green Union, led by 46-year-old millionaire farmer Ramunas Karbauskis were expected to end up with 56 seats in the 141-member Parliament, according to preliminary results provided by the Central Electoral Committee, in the biggest victory by a single party in 20 years.
The conservative Homeland Union-Christian Democrats would have 30 seats, while the incumbent ruling party, the Social Democrats, would take 18 seats, the preliminary results show. The remaining seats were split among several smaller parties.
At stake in Sunday's runoff were 68 seats. All the other seats had already been allotted after a first round of balloting on Oct. 9. In the first round, the ruling Social Democrats came in third with 13 seats, behind the Homeland Union-Christian Democrats, which won 20 seats, and the Peasants and Green Union with 19 seats.
Expecting a poor showing, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius acknowledged earlier Sunday "a kind of defeat" if his party was forced into opposition.
"We should have focused more on the campaign, but we were working instead and hoped people would notice the progress," Butkevicius told reporters, when casting his ballot at a school in central Vilnius. He was referring to recent policies which the Social Democrats launched after gradually losing support since the last election in 2012, including a controversial labor law that favored employers and measures on transforming the energy sector, leading to a sharp drop in consumers' utility bills.
The preliminary results indicate that the agrarian bloc will likely form the basis of the next majority ruling coalition, but its partners were unclear.
"We are not ruling out any possibilities, even a broad coalition if we agree on the major challenge: how to stop citizens fleeing Lithuania," Karbauskis, the party's chairman, told reporters. He has said, however, that he would not take the post of prime minister in any coalition.
Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Estonia, regained independence after splitting from the Soviet Union in 1990 and has since lost nearly a quarter of its pre-independence population of 3.7 million with many seeking work elsewhere in Europe. It is a member of the 28-nation European Union and was hit hard by the global economic recession in 2009-2010. At the beginning of last year it adopted the EU's common currency, the euro, which has sharply increased prices while wages and pensions remain among the lowest in the bloc.
Both government and opposition parties had promised to raise living standards in the country of 2.9 million.
The conservatives, who campaigned heavily for change were hoping for sizable gains in the election. Their leader Gabrielius Landsbergis, at age 34, had been expected to become Europe's youngest prime minister. He is the grandson of Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania's first head of state after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and considered by many as a national hero.
"This means that our message about necessary changes was not able to reach many voters. But again, this is just the beginning of the long road we will have to travel," Landsbergis said, visibly disappointed by the result.