Lithuanian presidential elections this year are distinguished by two features: Certainty that incumbent Valdas Adamkus will win another term, and the large number of candidates vying for the post regardless of the predetermined outcome.
Pundits have been calling the election a done deal for months, but the 17 candidates likely to appear on the ballot on Dec. 22 stands in stark contradiction to forecasts of a dull day at the polls.
The deadline for candidates to present the required 20,000 voter signatures passed on Nov. 7. Only two of 20 possible candidates failed to come up with the required number.
There was never any question that the leading candidates - Adamkus and Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas - wouldn't be able to gather enough voters to sign their petitions, but for the smaller candidates it was down to the wire, with campaign volunteers working through the night to bundle their sheets of signatures in the manner prescribed by the Elections Commission.
Kazimieras Uoka, leader of the National Democratic Party and one of the candidates who failed to meet the requirement, said, "We were short 3,000 signatures."
New Nationalist Union MP Stanislovas Buskevicius did come up with the required number but dropped out anyway, lending his support to the Christian Democrat Union candidate Kazys Bobelis.
Sixteen other candidates are still in the running, most of them renown for their outspoken views. Lithuanian Freedom Union MP Vytautas Sustauskas and Christian Democrat Kazys Bobelis have openly made racist and anti-Semitic remarks in the past.
The Elections Commission wavered on its deadline, catching the smaller campaigns off-guard, initially saying the signatures had to be turned in by the end of the working day on Nov. 6, then backtracking to 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 7.
Latest survey results by Lithuania's Baltijos Tyrimai pollster show Adamkus retains his long-standing popularity with 26.4 percent of the public's confidence, followed by Social Democrat Prime Minister Brazauskas (not in the running) with 14.6 percent.
Parliamentary Chairman Paulauskas stood at 10.9 percent in the poll.
Bobelis and Paksas are close for fourth place, with 10 percent and 9.5 percent respectively. Social Democrat candidate Andriukaitis barely weighed in with 2.8 percent.
The main candidates - Adamkus and Paulauskas - have refrained so far from debating any of the lesser candidates.
Before he announced his intention to run, Adamkus told reporters last spring he was the "NATO and EU" candidate, signaling that he would run on those issues. With NATO membership seemingly here, and Adamkus the host for U.S. President Bush when that latter visits Vilnius later this month, the incumbent appears likely to win a second term.
On the other hand, recent opinion polls show confidence in government institutions has reached new lows among the Lithuanian public, and this might turn out to be the year of the dark horse candidate at polling booths.
In 1999 Rolandas Paksas, the then prime minister, shot ahead of Adamkus in opinion polls after bucking the system, refusing to sign on to a deal giving the U.S. company Williams control over a Lithuanian oil refinery.
If the main candidates continue to keep quiet, they might preserve their ratings until the election. If something unexpected happens in Lithuanian public life before that time, all bets are off, according to analysts.
Political analyst Arturas Racas said that Adamkus and Bush appearing together in Vilnius and NATO membership could serve to pump up Adamkus' ratings.
Adamkus' campaign officials are apparently counting on that.
"On the other hand, if NATO membership isn't forthcoming, it could hurt Adamkus. Opponents could seize on it as a goal Adamkus didn't fulfill," Racas said.