PROFILE: Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda

PROFILE: Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda
Former economist Gitanas Nauseda has forged a reputation as one of the staunchest backers of Ukraine. / European Parliament
By `Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius May 10, 2024

As Lithuanians prepare to vote in the presidential elections on May 12, the question on many minds is: Will Gitanas Nauseda be already re-elected for a second term in the first round with more than 50% of the vote and therefore avoid a runoff two weeks later?

“Although most talk about who will make it to [the run-off], I would not rule out that the incumbent president will get the job done already in the first round. So big is his support,” Professor Lauras Bielinis at Vytautas Magnus University told bne IntelliNews.

The latest poll, conducted in late April by Spinter Tyrimai on behalf of the news portal Delfi,  shows that 29.1 per cent would have voted for Nauseda, 14.2 per cent for Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, candidate of the ruling Homeland Union-LCD (TS-LKD), and 12.7 per cent for anti-vaxx lawyer Ignas Vegele. Support for the other five candidates is below 6 per cent.

Several reasons are behind the former bank economist’s popularity. Nauseda – who is almost 2 metres tall – has a reputation for being smart and an expert.

Even though economic policy is not strictly within the president’s competence, Nauseda has benefited from Lithuania’s economic recovery. Inflation has fallen to zero this year, boosting consumer spending.

“Nauseda is an economist, so many link the health of the economy with him. He is smart, no one can boss him around. I played chess with him when he perhaps did not think of the presidency. I remember he would freeze up speechless before making a move on the chessboard,” Eimutis Zidanavicius, councillor of the Palanga municipality, told bne IntelliNews, adding: “I wish though he were tougher and more determined – on everything.”

In foreign policy – where the president has more powers – the 59-year-old head-of-state is also well known as one of the staunchest backers of Ukraine, despite the revelation of his previous membership of the Communist Party in the late 1980s, which he had kept quiet until it was revealed last year.

He has strongly pushed for a build-up in Lithuania’s defence. In 2022 he secured an agreement with his German counterpart Olaf Scholz  to station a permanent brigade of as many as 5,000 German soldiers in Lithuania, and the first German troops began deploying in April.

Here there is firm agreement with the government, but on China there remain differences. Nauseda has taken a far less hawkish stance on China than Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis. In a slap in the face of the government, Nauseda said this week that the title of the Taiwanese Representative Office should be changed. The naming of the office caused a rift with Beijing in 2021 that has yet to be repaired.

"The adjustment of the name could serve as Lithuania’s signal towards the normalisation of diplomatic relations with China,” Nauseda said.

Nauseda has also squabbled with Landsbergis on the appointment of ambassadors to key destinations, such as Poland and United Kingdom.

Conservative Lithuanians  definitely side with Nauseda, who has criticised policies to end discrimination against the LGBTQ minority, and opposed ratification of the Istanbul Convention against violence to women, and the decriminalisation of cannabis, all of which are supported by the TS-LKD-led cabinet.

“He is definitely a man of tradition. One very patient, tolerant and approachable, without a plum in his mouth,” Gintaras Tomkus, editor-in-chief of the daily Vakaru Ekspresas, told bne IntelliNews.

If a runoff is needed, the question is who would be with him on the ballot on May 26. Bielinis says the two’s chances are pretty similar, but Naglis Puteikis, a former right-wing legislator, is convinced that Simonyte has an edge.

“Voters of her party (TS-LKD) are very disciplined and always turn out on an election day. Besides, as PM, she uses governmental resources and basks in TV appearances to get voters on her side. Besides, we see that Vegele's opponents have been actively digging up dirt on him lately,” Puteikis told bne IntelliNews.

An investigation platform has reported that the Vegele family runs a Russia-linked business in Kyrgyzstan. This week, a report of the family’s business in China has surfaced too.