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Populist Paksas storms to power in Lithuania
By Erik Brynhildsbakken

VILNIUS, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Right-winger Rolandas Paksas won a surprise victory in Lithuania's weekend election, securing power with a populist message that will shake up local politics but is unlikely to knock European Union entry off course.

Paksas, a 46-year-old former prime minister and stunt pilot, defeated President Valdas Adamkus by a stunning 10 point margin by appealling to those who have lost out in the small Baltic state's transition from communism to democracy since 1991.

His victory sets up a tussle with the leftist coalition of Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas over economic policy that may overshadow a May referendum on EU entry but is unlikely to damage its outcome, analysts say.

EU membership is popular among Lithuania's 3.5 million people, with opinion polls showing 64 percent support for joining the bloc in May 2004 and just 17 percent against.

Adamkus easily won last month's first round vote and Paksas was given slim chances in the run-off against the president, 30 years his senior and hailed for guiding Lithuania towards NATO and EU entry while rebuilding ties with Moscow.

But Paksas pulled ahead in the poorly attended vote with vague promises to improve the living conditions of the many Lithuanians suffering hardship.

"People are getting high on the word 'change', but changes can also be for the worse," Vytautas Landsbergis, who led the ex-communist republic's freedom movement and was president at independence in 1991, told reporters on Monday.

Lithuanian voters have a tradition of surprising pundits in what analysts say is a reflection of the youth of its democracy. Adamkus, who spent much of his life in the United States, was himself a shock winner of the presidency five years ago.


Paksas accused Adamkus during the campaign of selling out in EU entry talks, especially on farm subsidies, and for failing to get the Union to replace an aged Soviet-era nuclear plant.

But the populist politician, who lasted just a few months as premier and whose politics are ill-defined, says he backs the goal of EU entry and will keep Lithuania on a pro-Western track. But he wants Brussels to review Lithuania's entry deal.

Paksas has rejected comparisons with radicals like France's Jean-Marie Le Pen or right-wing populists who have attracted support in neighbouring Poland, where the EU entry vote is seen at much more risk from radicals campaigning to reject the bloc.

The EU last month invited 10 mostly ex-communist east European states to join in 2004.

Most candidates back EU entry strongly although risks remain that some states, such as Latvia, Malta and Poland, will vote against joining the bloc.

Paksas's election will have the biggest impact at home, where he has already called for the sacking of several members of Brazauskas's cabinet, despite having little constitutional authority to interfere in the daily running of government.

"I am not inclined to make changes in government," Brazauskas told reporters on Monday.

Maris Lauri, an analyst with Hansabank Markets in Estonia, said Paksas would need to work with Brazauskas or be isolated.

"I don't think the election will have any significant consequences for Lithuania's economy," she said.

(Additional reporting by Bryan Bradley)

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