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May 29, 2017

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Lithuania 'Iron Lady' to face leftist in run-off vote

VILNIUS--Lithuania's incumbent "Iron Lady" Dalia Grybauskaite took pole position in a presidential race Sunday marked by her hard line against a resurgent Russia amid the Ukraine crisis, but will face a leftist in round two.

The karate black belt scored 45.8 of the vote compared to 13.7 percent for Social Democrat MEP Zigmantas Balcytis with 97.7 percent of votes counted, official results showed, triggering a final face off on May 25.

Nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her Thatcheresque resolve, Grybauskaite topped the poll as many see her as their best chance to fend off unwanted Russian advances amid Europe's worst standoff with Moscow since the Cold War.

"I thank everyone and I hope all of us will be loyal to our country," she told reporters as the result rolled in.

"I believe that everyone who voted for me today will come to support me in two weeks," she added.

Ahead of the ballot, the 58-year-old had vowed to "take a gun myself to defend the country if that's what's needed for national security."

By contrast, the 60-year-old Balcytis has taken a decidedly more cautious approach on Russia and focused on bread and butter social issues instead.

"I have a vision and ideas about what to do so that people have jobs and are earning," Balcytis, who previously served as transport and finance minister, told reporters as he feted his unexpected advance to round two.

Grybauskaite needed to win half of the votes cast with a turnout of at least 50 percent for an outright first-round victory, a feat she easily pulled off in 2009.

Official turnout Sunday tallied at 52.10 percent of the country's 2.5 million registered voters.

Analysts were cautious in their predictions for round two.

"The incumbent president will be the favorite, but she is not an absolute one. Balcytis can collect quite a few votes from other candidates," Ramunas Vilpisauskas, head of the Vilnius-based Institute for International Relations and Political Science, told AFP.

"Some voters like his soft approach, but that could turn to a disadvantage ... appearing like a lack of determination," he added.

Five other candidates were eliminated Sunday.

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

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