Local residents in Vilnius at the bus stop with an election posterof Social Democrat party leader Algirdas Butkevicius i Thursday Oct. 11 2012. Lithuanians elect a new parliament on Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lithuanians are expected to deal a double-blow to the incumbent conservative government in national elections Sunday by handing a victory to opposition leftists and populists and saying 'no' to a new nuclear power plant that supporters claim would boost the country's energy independence.
Exhausted after years of budget cuts, high unemployment, and declining living standards, Lithuanians were likely to opt for either the Social Democrats or Order and Justice, a populist party led by a former president impeached eight years ago, according to pre-election polls.
The government of Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius took over at the end of 2008 and was immediately forced to cut spending and raise taxes to fend off a crushing economic decline that followed years of robust growth.
Though Lithuania has avoided defaulting on its debts, its citizens have felt the financial pinch and seen their standard of living fall sharply. Tens of thousands of people have fled the country to seek jobs elsewhere in the European Union, leading to one of the sharpest demographic declines in all of Europe.
Lithuanians will also express their opinion on whether the next government should proceed with plans to build a new nuclear power plant — one that would replace a Soviet-era facility that closed in 2009.
Although the referendum is non-binding, a large 'no' vote could torpedo plans to build the plant along with neighbors Estonia and Latvia. Supporters say the new plant, which would be built by Japan's Hitachi, is needed to ensure the region's energy independence. But many Lithuanians fear that the project, which as an estimated 5 billion euro ($6 billion) price tag, will shackle the country of 3 million people with overbearing debt.
Lithuania relies predominantly on Russian gas for energy, and consumers have seen their monthly energy bills soar in recent years.
The most recent poll, which was taken in May, showed that two-thirds of Lithuanians are opposed to building a new atomic power plant.