A flamboyant former prime minister, Rolandas Paksas, upset Lithuania's popular incumbent President Valdas Adamkus in voting Sunday.
"I was always saying I would win," Paksas told supporters as early returns showed him with a strong lead. "I know the problems of this country, and I know how to solve them."
With votes from nearly all polling stations in the Baltic nation tallied by early today, Paksas, 46, leader of the right-wing Liberal Democrats, had 55%. Adamkus, 76, a former U.S. citizen, took 45%.
Adamkus, who emigrated to the United States as a youth but returned to his homeland after it regained independence from the Soviet Union, was elected president in January 1998 and led his country on the path toward membership in both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. A center-right politician without party affiliation, he enjoyed high approval ratings in polls, and it was widely expected that he would win reelection.
But Paksas -- under the slogan "Vote for change!" -- ran an aggressive campaign built on promises of greater prosperity and a crackdown on crime. He drew his strongest support, analysts said, from those who have lost out in a decade of market-oriented reforms.
A stunt pilot, the challenger boosted his youthful can-do image during the race by flying his single-seater prop plane in formation with two other planes underneath a low bridge. Paksas has said he would continue his acrobatic flying as president.
"My determination to become president in order to be able to implement changes has provoked fierce resistance from those in whom changes provoke only fear and a desire to resist," Paksas said on Lithuanian television Friday. "That is why various anti-Paksas fronts are being established. Some see my participation in the election as a threat to democracy. Others can see Moscow's hand behind my back. I reject those absurd trumped-up allegations."
Paksas earlier won popularity as mayor of the capital, Vilnius, with a successful revitalization of the city's old town district.
Adamkus, who spent half a century in the United States, gave up his American citizenship in 1998, just a day before being sworn in as Lithuania's president. Before that, he was the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago.
He barely campaigned for a second five-year term, telling voters that he was too busy ensuring the success of talks on joining NATO and the EU.
On Dec. 22, Adamkus took 35% of the votes in a 17-candidate first round of voting, while Paksas finished second with 19%.
Nearly 2.7 million of Lithuania's 3.5 million residents were eligible to vote in the presidential election, the third since the country regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But voter turnout Sunday was low, just 51% compared with 73% in the 1998 election.
An independent Lithuanian state was established in 1236. The country was absorbed by czarist Russia in 1795 and remained under Russian control until the end of World War I in 1918. Annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, it was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941 and reoccupied by the Soviets in 1944.
Paksas, who will take office Feb. 26, has pledged to keep Lithuania's integration with the Euro-Atlantic community on track. Most analysts foresee little change in the country's foreign policy, although some critics charge that Paksas is too populist and too right-wing for Western European leaders to feel comfortable with his victory.
Lithuania received an invitation in November to join NATO and was among 10 countries invited in December to join the European Union on May 1, 2004.
During his campaign, Paksas charged that Adamkus had made too many concessions to the EU in negotiations on entry terms. He particularly criticized those terms as they affect farmers and Adamkus' agreement to shut down an old nuclear power plant without winning EU support to build a replacement.
Sunday evening, however, Adamkus expressed confidence that Paksas will not undo the country's achievements.
"Whatever decision is made today, Lithuania will stay on the path it was following for the past 12 years," the incumbent told supporters as the vote count was coming in. "We have already laid a firm foundation, and it cannot be destroyed."