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Exit poll: conservatives ahead in Lithuania vote
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    VILNIUS, Lithuania — A conservative opposition party and a populist group led by an impeached ex-president made strong gains in Lithuania’s election Sunday, while the centrist government faltered, an exit poll indicated.
    The poll, released on Lithuania’s TV3 network moments after voting ended, suggested the government could be ousted by a conservative-led coalition or a rival populist bloc.
    It showed the conservative Homeland Union winning 21 percent of the vote, and two allied populist parties — led by ex-president Rolandas Paksas and Russian-born businessman Viktor Uspaskich — mustering a combined 25 percent.
    Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas’ Social Democrats received 14 percent of the vote, while their four partners in the coalition government failed to break the 5 percent barrier to remain in Parliament, according to the survey by the Rait pollster.
    The final result was unclear because the survey only included the party list vote, which covers 70 of the 141 seats in Parliament. The remaining 71 seats are decided in individual races in single-mandate constituencies, many of which will require a runoff on Oct. 26.
    The vote also featured a nonbinding referendum on whether to keep a flawed, Soviet-era nuclear plant operating beyond its scheduled closure in 2009. The Central Election Commission said Sunday it appeared the referendum could be invalid due to low voter turnout.
    The Chernobyl-style nuclear plant’s design flaws scare EU members, who insist that it be closed on its scheduled date in December 2009. Many Lithuanians claim that shutting down the Ignalina plant, which gives them energy independence, would leave them vulnerable to Russia, an unreliable energy supplier.
    The exit poll results could suggest a lengthy battle for the next government, with the conservatives vying for power with the populist parties.
    The Order and Justice party is led by Paksas, a stunt pilot and former president who was ousted in 2004. Uspaskich, a Russian-born businessman who made his fortune selling jarred pickles, heads Labor.
    Order and Justice was in second place with 14 percent of the vote, while Labor was in fifth spot with 11 percent, the survey showed.
    TV3 said the poll included more than 4,600 respondents and had a 1.5 percent margin of error.
    If victorious, Paksas and Uspaskich could form the backbone of a populist coalition that would likely talk tough to the European Union on the nuclear plant and improve relations with neighboring Russia.
    Lithuania, which regained independence in 1991 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, experienced an economic boom after joining the EU in 2004.
    However, the economy overheated and like its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania is now struggling with high inflation and slumping growth.
    Paksas was ousted in 2004 for violating the Constitution and abuse of office, making him the first European head of state to be impeached and removed from office. Though he is constitutionally barred from occupying public office, he could wield tremendous influence on the sidelines.
    Uspaskich was forced to resign as economy minister after coming under investigation for a conflict of interest case involving Russia, where he was born.