Algis Milasius doesn’t have a flushing toilet, and he gets his water from a well in his yard. He survives by raising chickens and keeping a garden, earning cash by chopping wood and carrying stones to buy marked-down staples at his village’s discount shop.
What makes Milasius special is that he not only lives in the European Union, but in Lithuania, a euro-area nation heralded as a model for economic integration. While living standards in the country of 2.8 million have leaped by half since it joined the E.U. in 2004, hundreds of thousands of people have left to escape the bloc’s second-highest inequality, and more than one in 10 people don’t have indoor plumbing.
It’s no surprise, then, that quality of life is dominating the Baltic state’s presidential ballot, which is happening alongside E.U. parliamentary elections this month. Running a close third in opinion polls, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis is attacking his front-running rival candidates, a respected economist and a former finance minister, blaming them and the central bank for missteps during the 2008 economic crisis.
All of the candidates are trying to woo voters like Milasius with pledges to raise spending.
“It’s all about survival,” said Milasius, a former sawmill worker in the town of Meskuiciai, 132 miles from the capital, Vilnius, who was still unsure about which candidate he’ll support. “I want to pick someone fair, someone who understands a simple person.”
Voters will cast ballots in the first of two rounds on Sunday, with a May 26 runoff almost guaranteed because none of the top three candidates looks able to win a majority.
Ex-Finance Minister Ingrida Simonyte is running neck and neck in opinion polls with Gitanas Nauseda, the former chief economist of lender SEB, who’s become a household name over the years, appearing on everything from TV cooking shows to the nightly news. Skvernelis says he’ll step down if he doesn’t advance to the second round, making the election a referendum on policies that include cash for poorer Lithuanians.
If “raising pensions, introducing child benefits and strengthening young families is populism, then I agree to be a populist,” he said.
While Lithuania’s president has limited powers over domestic issues such as social or economic policies, candidates are pledging to use the moral authority provided by the position to influence the government’s policies.
The populist campaigning has been more muted than in Baltic peer Estonia, where a far-right euroskeptic party took seats in the government last month. But anti-elite rhetoric is resonating among voters in a country where salaries among the rural population — Lithuania is the only E.U. state where a majority lives outside of cities — are just over half of those in Vilnius.
Income inequality and risk of poverty are in a “critical situation” and “reflect both the low level of benefit adequacy and the very limited progressivity of the tax system,” the European Commission said in a February report.
While Skvernelis is the only candidate who’s outlined concrete proposals to raise spending, Nauseda has vowed to raise what’s the second-lowest level of government outlays in the E.U. after Ireland.
Simonyte has warned that raising expenditure is only a short-term fix.
“Vilnius must care and will care about how other parts of Lithuania are doing,” she said. “We need to strengthen the society where people and the regions don’t feel forgotten, marginalized or unwanted.”