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Lithuanians Prepare for Run-Off Presidential Election - 2004-06-26

Voters in Lithuania will go to the polls Sunday in a run-off presidential election that comes in the midst of a political scandal in the Baltic country. Last week police raided the offices of four political parties in what critics say was a way to influence the outcome of Sunday's vote.

Sunday's vote in Lithuania will decide who is to replace former President Rolandas Paksas, who was impeached in April after parliament found he violated the constitution. Mr. Rolandas was ousted just 15 months after his upset victory over Valdas Adamkus early last year.

The 77-year-old Mr. Adamkus won the first round of voting on June 13 and is favored to win the run-off against Kazimira Prusnkiene, a former prime minister endorsed by the impeached Mr. Paksas.

Lithuania was thrown into political turmoil last week when police raided the offices of political parties which support Mr. Adamkus. Officially, the raids were part of a drive to root out corruption, and, the police say, had nothing to do with politics.

But critics of the government don't buy this argument, and point out that the police unit conducting the raid is led by an ally of Mr. Paksas.

Andrius Butkus, an analyst with the Baltic Research Center in Moscow, says the timing does appear suspicious.

"It is difficult to say, is it coincidence or not? Anyway, it's quite strange when special agency can't wait a few days more," he said.

Mr. Butkus says that, in the wake of the raids, the outcome of the election is now too close to call.

Despite his impeachment, Mr. Paksas remain a popular figure, especially in rural areas. Analysts say Mr. Adamkus' advanced age may also be a factor, and, during his campaign, he appeared tired and on the defensive in televised debates.

The political drama in Lithuania unfolds just as the country entered a new era, joining both the NATO military alliance and the European Union earlier this year.