2024 / 05 / 28 (火)

Nakai, Ryo "Lithuania presidential election in 2024 and its implication on East Asia" (ROLES Commentary No.24)

[ROLES Commentary No.24] [Japanese version]

A run-off election for the Lithuanian presidency was held on 26 May 2024, pitting current President Gitanas Nausėda against current Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, with the former winning around three-quarters of the vote. Lithuania is now known as the most hardline country in Europe on China, and its president is involved in foreign policy, so its political situation is linked to the international politics surrounding Japan and East Asia. Although the incumbent president's re-election is not expected to bring about any significant changes, some interesting aspects of the election process relate to East Asia and Japan.
Lithuania's diplomacy and its Indo-pacific strategy
In recent years, Lithuanian politics has actively developed its engagement with East Asian international relations in addition to its previous hardline policy towards Russia. First, they have demonstrated a confrontational stance towards the People's Republic of China. In May 2021, Lithuania withdrew from the '17+1' economic cooperation framework China had been promoting with Central and Eastern European countries, making it clear that Lithuania would distance itself from China. In November of the same year, Lithuania allowed Taiwan to establish its de facto embassy (representative office) under the name of 'Taiwan'. [i] These developments led China to impose economic sanctions on Lithuania. Lithuania kept its foreign policy without concession, and after some confusion involving the EU, China finally gave up on continuing the sanctions. Second, Lithuania fosters cooperation with Taiwan and Japan. In addition to the aforementioned strengthening of relations with Taiwan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania issued a new Indo-Pacific strategy document in 2023,[ii] in which it expressed the strengthening of ties with Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc., and made many references to Japan and Taiwan in particular. It is symbolic that the US, Japan and Lithuania first provided assistance to Taiwan when Taiwan was struggling with vaccine shortages during the 2021 pandemic of COVID-19.

The strengthening of relations with the US, Russia's approach to China, and Lithuania's values diplomacy have been behind this trend. The centre-right Homeland Union (TS-LKD) leading coalition government (that came to power after theOctober 2020 general elections) took the initiative on these foreign policies. The Homeland Union has led the practical part of diplomacy as the parliamentary majority and ruling party in government. The leadership not only of Prime Minister Šimonytė but also of Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who is also the Homeland Union's chairperson, has had a significant presence in the country. Nausėda himself also have been positive about the very existence of a Taiwanese representative office for Lithuania but stated that the name was open for re-consideration, striking a balance with the Homeland Union coalition government.
The implications of Electoral results and its campaigns.
Re-elected President Nausėda was originally an economist rather than a professional politician. He worked at the Central Bank of Lithuania and then at SEB Bank, one of the largest commercial banks in Lithuania (somewhat as an aside, he came to Japan as a guest of the 2nd Japan-Baltic Seminar (2009) when he was an economist).[iii] He entered politics by running for the presidential elections in 2019 after winning a run-off ballot against Šimonytė, so this time's election was his second run-off with her. In this election, Šimonytė was the candidate of the current ruling party, the right-wing Homeland Union, while Nausėda was an independent candidate, with the backing of the opposition centre-left Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP).

In the first round of voting on 12 May, out of eight candidates, Nausėda received 44.0% of the votes and Šimonytė 20.1%. Nausėda's dominance was nationwide, as he received first-place votes in almost all municipalities, except for Šimonytė's dominance in the capital city Vilnius. As none of the candidates received a simple majority (50%) of the votes, a run-off election was held two weeks later, on 26 May, in which only the top two candidates were contested. Nausėda won the run-off with 74.4% of the votes cast in that run-off. Nausėda received more votes than in the first round of voting, meaning that he attracted more support from voters who had voted for the third-placed or lower candidate in the first round, whereas Šimonytė hardly increased her vote count (Table 1).
Table 1: The result of the Lithuania presidential election in 2024
Tab1eng.png 11.5KB
Source: The central electoral commission of the Republic of Lithuania.
The defeat of Šimonytė, the candidate of the current ruling party, cannot be regarded as an objection by public opinion to Lithuania's current hard-line foreign policy towards China and Russia. In the first place, since the incumbent president was re-elected, it is more natural to assume that the voters generally support and approve of the current course. Since the Homeland Union has had a low support rate in recent years (Figure 1), while the largest opposition party LSDP supports Nausėda without running its own candidate, the presidential election can simply reflect the party's support situation. In general, foreign policy's impact on forming party support is not very significant. Nevertheless, if the current level of party support continued, there would be a high probability that the Homeland Union would lose in the national elections in October 2024. It is undeniable that Lithuania's Indo-Pacific strategy in recent years, led by the Homeland Union, may change. Although the current most prominent opposition party, LSDP, is not necessarily more diplomatically dovish than the Homeland Union (rather, more hawkish in some policy areas[iv]), changes in the domestic political situation up to October should be considered.
Figure 1. Party Support Ratings
Fig1.png 162KB
Note: The light blue line indicates support for the Homeland Union (TS-LKD), and the red line for the LSDP.
In the election campaign before the first round of voting, much attention was paid to the candidate Ignas Vėgėlė (who ended up in third place). Some preliminary opinion polls showed more support for Vėgėlė than for Šimonytė. Some described Vėgėlė, a university academician and lawyer, not a professional politician, as a far-right conspiracy theorist and populist. He once belonged to the right-wing party (Lithuania Christian Democrats: LKD) that later formed the Homeland Union but left it as the merged Homeland Union were too moderate, and he was involved in the anti-vaccine campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, he was actually closer to the incumbent Nausėda in his policy orientation and, therefore, also declared his support for Nausėda after his defeat in the first round of voting.[v] Local broadcaster LRT interviewed each candidate on their support for or against 15 key issues, and the only major differences in their policy positions between Nausėda and Vėgėlė were for or against maintaining the Taiwan Representative Office (Nausėda for, Vėgėlė against) and the domestic education issue.[vi] If the two candidates had gone to a run-off, East Asian diplomacy could have been a salient issue in the Lithuanian presidential election. 

Background of pro-China and pro-Russia candidate supporters. 
Some observers have commented that not only the third-placed candidate Vėgėlė but also the fourth- and fifth-placed candidates were what might be described as 'conspiracy theorists'.[vii] Particular attention was paid to the fifth-placed candidate, Eduardas Vaitkus, and his voting support. Vaitkus is a very 'peculiar' candidate, expressing strongly anti-NATO, pro-Russia and pro-China views,[viii] but two regions gave him the most support in the first round of elections (Figure 2). Two of these areas, the southeastern district of Šalčininkai and the north-eastern city of Visaginas are home to a large Polish minority in the former and a large Russian-speaking population in the latter. That does not mean that the policy orientation differs due to ethnic differences; instead, it is a question of social recognition and political networks. The local press also pointed out that Vaitkus was the only one who actively spoke to the people of this area suffering from alienation and a lack of welfare, as mainstream politicians had ignored this area as a voting base.[ix]
Figure 2. First Place Candidates at the 1st Round of Lithuania Presidential Election by Municipalities
Fig2.png 160KB
Note: Orange - Nauceda, Blue - Simonite, Ocher - Vaituks
Source: The Central Electoral Commission of the Republic of Lithuania (
In particular, the situation in Visaginas is not unrelated to Japan. There was a plan to build the Visaginas nuclear power plant (VNPP), with Japan's Hitachi cooperation, which was supposed to supply electricity to the entire Baltic States (not only Lithuania) and play a role in energy security. This project was intended to replace the old Ignalina nuclear power plant, which had existed since the former Soviet times and had to be decommissioned at the end of 2009 to satisfy EU criteria.[x] The construction plan, which the parliament had once approved, was halted after a slight majority against it in a 2012 consultative referendum in the wake of the anti-NPP movement before it, fearing high electricity prices. Security agencies pointed out that these anti-NPP campaigns had been influenced and financed by Russia[xi] to destabilize the Baltic countries' energy independence from Russia.

Most of the residents of Visaginas are the descendants of the former Soviet technical elite from all over the Soviet Union, and that is why many of them speak Russian as their lingua franca or mother tongue. Life in Visaginas has changed drastically, and people "faced not only social insecurity and unemployment, but also a lack of meaning in life."[xii] After the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, Visaginas has been singled out by the international media for curiosity and alarm as 'the land of the Russian-speaking population'. Once a land of scientific elites and people enjoying a prosperous life, it has become a place of hardship and oblivion and is searching for a new positive identity.[xiii] The ground penetrated by a pro-China and pro-Russia camp, which could be described as a non-mainstream opinion, has unique circumstances and background.
The result of the Lithuanian presidential election was the incumbent president's re-election, and no significant immediate diplomatic changes are expected from this result alone. At the same time, however, it means the defeat of the ruling party, which in recent years has increased its vigilance towards China and strengthened relations with Japan and Taiwan, and the need to pay attention to this autumn's parliamentary elections and the consequences of their outcome. In some areas, votes have been concentrated on pro-China and pro-Russian candidates for third and lower places. It is important to look at this phenomenon with the understanding of domestic and regional context and not over-simplification as a manifestation of ethnic differences or conspiratorial thinking.

[i]Some other European countries also set up Taiwanese representative offices, but they usually used the name 'Taipei', considering the relationship with Beijing.
[ii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Republic of Lithuania (2023) For a Secure, Resilient and Prosperous Future.
[iii] Nakai, Ryo (2022) “Expanding and Evolving Baltic Studies in Japan: Content Analysis of Bibliographical Databases” Journal of Law and Political Science, 50(1/2), 137-153. A guide from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time is available from the Internet Archive.
[iv] Grigas, Agnia (2014) The Politics of Energy and Memory between the Baltic States and Russia, Routledge.
[v] Broga, Karolis (2024) “Vėgėlė endorses Nausėda in presidential runoff”, 2024.05.24 15:40:
[vi] LRT.LT (2024) “Prezidento rinkimai 2024” The policy comparison is no longer available, but we can still check the information at that time from the Internet Archive.
[vii] Jokubauskas, Vytautas (2024) “3rd, 4th and 5th place is shared among dumbest conspiracy theorists, moronic populists and all out idiots. So roughly, around 30 percent of electorate is susceptible for Fico/Orbanist type nonsense. 30% is a worrying ammount, yet not enough to have any meaningful influence.”
[viii] Stankevičius, Aaugustas (2024) “Lithuanian presidential candidates’ views on foreign policy”, 2024.05.09 08:00
[ix] Edvardas Špokas, Arneta Matuzevičiūtė (2022) Vaitkaus pergalė Šalčininkuose ir Visagine – ar kalti tik rusiški lankstinukai? 2024.05.19 22:22.
[x] To be precise, reactor Unit 1 was decommissioned in 2004, and the operation of Unit 2 was extended until 2009 as a transitional measure.
[xi] Vilmer, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène, Alexandre Escorcia, Marine Guillaume, and Janaina Herrer (2018) Information Manipulation: A Challenge for Our Democracies, report by the Policy Planning Staff (CAPS) of the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM) of the Ministry for the Armed Forces, Paris, August 2018; Jermalavičius, Tomas et al. (2022) Developing Nuclear Energy in Estonia: An Amplifier of Strategic Partnership with the United States? International Centre for Defense and Security.
[xii] Dovydaitytė, Linara (2022) “(Re)Imagining the nuclear in Lithuania following the shutdown of the Ignalina nuclear power plant” Journal of Baltic Studies, 53(3): 415-436.
[xiii] Mažeikienė, Natalija and Eglė Gerulaitienė (2022) “Negotiating post-nuclear identities through tourism development in the ‘atomic town’ Visaginas” Journal of Baltic Studies, 53(3): 437-457.



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