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May 27, 2017

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Lithuania's 'Iron Lady' poised for poll victory

VILNIUS--Lithuanians were voting Sunday to elect their president, with incumbent "Iron Lady" Dalia Grybauskaite the favorite to win for her hard line on a resurgent Russia during the Ukraine crisis.

Grybauskaite is poised to win a second term as many here who remember Soviet times see her as a their best hope amid Europe's worst standoff with Moscow since the Cold War.

A former EU budget chief, the 58-year-old Grybauskaite is likely to score over 50 percent of the vote, recent opinion surveys showed, but low turnout could trigger a May 25 run-off in this NATO member country.

Six other candidates have all polled around 10 percent and are not regarded as serious rivals.

"If turnout exceeds 50 percent, she has quite a good chance of scoring a first round victory," Ramunas Vilpisauskas, a political scientist at Vilnius University, told AFP.

A candidate must win half of the votes cast with a turnout of at least 50 percent to win in round one.

Grybauskaite, who has a black belt in karate and is nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her Thatcheresque resolve, scored a resounding first round victory in 2009.

Turnout in the first three hours of voting Sunday tallied at over 7 percent of the country's 2.5 million registered voters, more than in 2009, election officials said.

This vote comes as Russia's annexation of Ukraine's former Crimean peninsula and sabre rattling in the neighboring Russian exclave of Kaliningrad have sparked deep seated fears in Lithuania, a country of three million.

Elvyra Vaicaityte, a student living a stone's throw from Kaliningrad, is spooked by rumblings of military might in the Russian exclave, sandwiched between Lithuania and fellow NATO member Poland.

"I can hear explosions during exercises, and windows often rattle — I don't feel very secure," the 23-year-old told AFP in the border town of Vilkaviskis.

Grybauskaite first urged and then welcomed the arrival of American troops last month as NATO stepped up its presence in the Baltic states, which spent five decades under Soviet occupation until 1991.

Lithuania along with Baltic minnows Latvia and Estonia all are keen to see more alliance "boots on the ground" amid the Ukraine crisis.

Voting began Sunday at 0400 GMT and was due to end at 1700 GMT with no exit polls scheduled.

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