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Lithuanian voters swing to opposition parties

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Opposition populists and leftists in crisis-worn Lithuania hinted they were prepared to form a government coalition after an exit poll late Sunday indicated their parties would take first and second place in the country's parliamentary elections.

Lithuania, having just emerged from a debilitating economic crisis, is still beset with high unemployment _ over 13 percent _ and falling living standards due in large part to higher energy costs. Tens of thousands have left the country to find jobs elsewhere in Europe.

Many put the blame for the woes squarely on the current government, which took over in late 2008 and immediately implemented tax hikes and spending cuts to stave off bankruptcy.

The populist Labor Party and the Social Democrats, both in the opposition, together mustered over 37 percent of the vote, according to the poll conducted by the BNS news agency and RAIT market research company, and party leaders, despite uneasy relations, have already suggested they were ready to work together.

The early maneuvering seemed aimed at slowing any euphoria in the current conservative coalition, which scored 25.2 percent in the exit poll _ a far stronger showing than anticipated.

But only half the seats in the 141-member Parliament are determined by party lists, while the other half consists of single-mandates, many of which will require a run-off ballot in two weeks. Only then will a clear picture of who could form the next government emerge.

The populist Labor Party was expected to finish first with 19.8 percent, according to the exit poll, while the Social Democrats were poised to place second with 17.8 percent.

Another populist party, Order and Justice, led by a president who was impeached eight years ago, came in sixth and could team up with the election's forecasted winners.

"There is a possibility that the ruling coalition will be formed from at least three parties. My prognosis is that these will be the Social Democrats, the Labor Party, and the Order and Justice party," Viktor Uspaskich, the Russia-born Labor leader, told journalists.

The Labor Party and the Social Democrats worked together in a scandal-plagued coalition after the 2004 elections.

The conservative Homeland Union, led by Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, was third in the poll with 16.7 percent of the vote, while its coalition partners, the Liberal Movement, was fourth with 8.5 percent.

The poll surveyed 3,786 voters, and had a 1.2 percent margin of error.

Lithuanians also voted in a referendum on whether to build a new nuclear power plant, which the ruling coalition claims will help establish the country's energy independence.

Opposition Social Democrats say the project is too expensive for the small country of 3 million people.