Lithuanians vote for ex-Communist leader

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ALGIRDAS BRAZAUSKAS, the former leader of Lithuania's Communist Party was last night heading for an overwhelming victory in the country's first presidential election since regaining independence in 1991.

With votes counted in six out of 55 districts, Mr Brazauskas had captured an average of 63 per cent, more than double the 27 per cent registered for his rival, Stasys Lozoraitis, the Lithuanian ambassador to the United States and the man whose candidacy was supported by 14 opposition parties.

Mr Brazauskas's near-certain victory, which was widely predicted, came just three months after his renamed Labour Democratic Party (DLP) caused a big upset by crushing the nationalist Sajudis movement, led by Vytautas Landsbergis, in parliamentary polls.

To opponents, Mr Brazauskas's triumph was seen as a step back to the Communist past. Many observers in Vilnius, however, said it represented a continuing rejection of what are widely perceived to have been the failures of the Landsbergis era; a lack of confidence in Mr Lozoraitis, a man who has spent more than 50 years abroad; and approval of Mr Brazauskas's pledge to adopt a more gentle approach to economic reform.

'Mr Brazuskas is a man we can trust, he is one of us,' said Marijona Ulonaviciene, a voter in the central Lithuanian town of Kaisiadorys, where the likely future president went to school. 'He has promised us jobs, better prices and no selling-out to foreigners. After all we have suffered in the past couple of years, he is bound to be an improvement.'

For Mrs Ulonaviciene, a pensioner struggling to make ends meet against a background of soaring inflation, falling production and almost constant fuel shortages, Lithuania's break with the former Soviet Union has proved an unmitigated disaster. And, although Mr Brazauskas has hardly been in a position to promise a restoration of the ancien regime, his pledge to seek improved relations with Moscow has come as music to the ears.

Tales of woe abound in Lithuania, and many blame the country's economic plight on Mr Landsbergis, the country's former leader and the man originally hailed as a hero for his defiant stance against the once seemingly all-powerful Soviet central authorities as early as 1990.

'Mr Landsbergis was all very good at waving the national flag, but when it came to running the country, he was simply out of his depth,' said Algis Cekuolis, one of the founding members of Sajudis. 'It is one thing to destroy an old system - but you have to have something to put in its place,' he added.

Although Mr Landsbergis blamed the defeat in last year's parliamentary elections on a 'slander' campaign directed against him in what he terms the 'leftist' press, few observers were surprised when he announced that he would not stand against Mr Brazauskas in yesterday's presidential poll, thereby paving the way for the challenge of Mr Lozoraitis.

Indeed, many Sajudis supporters believed their only chance of success lay in putting up a neutral candidate who was not associated with the largely discredited policies of the Landsbergis era.