Adamkus, Paulauskas square off in TV debate

  • 2002-09-26
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

In what many analysts say promises to be a rematch of the election that brought him to power five years ago, President Valdas Adamkus faced off against his most serious challenger, Parliament Speaker Arturas Paulauskas, in a televised debate last week.

Adamkus, who beat Paulauskas in the 1997-98 elections by a razor thin margin in a second-round runoff, will seek re-election when Lithuanians vote on Dec. 22.

Five years ago, Adamkus won 49.96 percent of the vote in the runoff, edging out Paulauskas, who garnered 49.22 percent. The difference was just several thousand votes.

Analysts expect the two men to face off again in a runoff, as few expect either to win more than 50 percent in the first round Dec. 22.

Several additional candidates, including former Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas, are also running, but most are considered long shots.

Last week's debate between the two men - the other candidates were not invited to participate, though many fired questions at the two candidates from the studio audience - contrasted sharply from their bout five years ago.

Back then, the two exchanged strong words in an emotional, closely-fought battle, but this time, the debate was more like a discussion, with both leaders treating each other with respect.

Paulauskas flubbed a question from one audience member who wanted to know what he would have done differently had he been elected five years ago.

After answering vaguely that he would have paid closer attention to law-and-order issues, he ended by saying the president has to stick to the main spheres proscribed to him by the constitution: foreign policy and defense.

Some analysts have said Paulauskas' main objective in running is to increase the profile of his center-left New Union ahead of municipal elections, also scheduled for December.

But most of the grilling from the audience was saved for the incumbent, and much of it centered around the hugely unpopular 1999 sale of the Mazeikiu Nafta oil concern to the U.S. energy firm Williams International.

Courted as an investor who would increase Lithuania's security and push it closer to the West and NATO, Williams presided over a Mazeikiu mired in financial losses before finally selling out to Russia's Yukos earlier this month.

The deal was widely seen as detrimental to Lithuania and Adamkus, a former U.S. citizen, was seen as a key supporter.

Juozas Petraitis, an Australian-born Lithuanian millionaire running for president, attacked Adamkus for supporting the deal, which led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas, another presidential candidate.

But Adamkus said he never came out fully in support on the deal's merits but rather backed it in the interest of the country's stability.

"The Conservative Party had an absolute majority of seats in the Parliament then and said they would have refused to form a government again if I'd created obstacles to the deal with Williams," Adamkus said. "I could not risk bringing the country into chaos. A refusal to form a government would have meant new parliamentary elections and chaos."

TV viewers were asked to state their preference by telephone, and the result was firm support for Adamkus, who got 20,603 votes to Paulauskas' 10,877.

On Dec. 22, Adamkus is expected to battle fellow American-Lithuanian Kazys Bobelis, leader of the tiny Christian Democrat party, for votes on the center-right, while Paulauskas' main challenger on the left will be Social Democrat Vytenis Andriukaitis.

If it goes to a Adamkus-Paulauskas second round, a recent poll by the social research firm Vilmorus conducted in early September suggests Adamkus would still come out on top, 56.1 percent to 26 percent.

If Paksas manages to sneak through to the second round and faces off against Adamkus, the incumbent would win by a similar count of 54.2 percent to 26.1 percent according to the Vilmorus poll.

Nearly 20 percent of respondents, however, said they remained undecided.

Against Andriukaitis, a member of the ruling government party, Adamkus would win more than 62 percent of the vote, the poll found.