Tycoon's model village woos Lithuanian voters

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Naisiai (Lithuania) (AFP)

A peasants' party that scored a surprise victory in Lithuania's weekend election is the brainchild of a farming tycoon famous for transforming his village from a derelict Soviet-era state farm into a pastoral wonderland.

Ramunas Karbauskis, 46, who runs the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party (LPGU) set to form the next government of the Baltic eurozone state, hails from tiny Naisiai.

Boasting an outdoor grass-covered amphitheatre able to accommodate an audience of 30,000, and public gardens dotted with statues of pagan-era Baltic gods, the northeastern village of 500 people has become the envy of rural communities across the country.

Its number one employer is Karbauskis's own Agrokoncernas farm services and products group, which boasted sales worth 400 million euros ($433 million) last year.

"Everyone in Lithuania knows Naisiai," Ieva Petronyte, a lecturer at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations of Vilnius University, told AFP.

"In opinion polls, respondents always mention Naisiai when they declare support for the LPGU.

"They think: if Karbauskis succeeded in Naisiai, why shouldn't he repeat that success for Lithuania?" she said.

In 2008, he masterminded "Summer in Naisiai", a prime-time television series about the romantic adventures and family life of a young woman that put the village in the national spotlight.

"The actors have become our guests and we have had to put our best foot forward every day," Zukauskiene Rasa, head of the Naisiai residents' association, told AFP.

Capitalising on the exposure, in 2010 the village launched a music festival at the amphitheatre which also was popular, thanks in part to a ban on alcohol.

The village's newfound fame has made it a tourist magnet drawing excursions from across the country.

It is a far cry from the "kolkhoz"-type Soviet state farm run by Karbauskis's father before Lithuania's 1990-1 split from the USSR ushered in democracy and capitalism.

"Being from Naisiai has become prestigious," said Vytautas Simkus, principal at the local school.

But success also has a downside: property prices have skyrocketed, forcing some to live in nearby villages where real estate is more affordable.

With Karbauskis footing much of the bill to develop local infrastructure, Petronyte is cautious about whether Naisiai's success can be copied.

"It's a semi-private initiative and there's no guarantee it could succeed at the national level," she told AFP.

- Village to victory -

After spending years on the margins of Lithuanian politics, the LPGU won Sunday's election on promises to boost economic growth to curb a labour exodus and also thanks to the stellar popularity of Saulius Skvernelis, a corruption-fighting former national police chief who is its candidate for prime minister.

His squeaky-clean image turned him into Lithuania's hottest political commodity virtually overnight.

Popular in the countryside, the LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy -- and above all, halt mass emigration.

Wage growth and job creation were key election issues in the country of 2.9 million people that has been plagued by an exodus of workers seeking higher wages abroad, notably in Western Europe.

Over the last 15 years, the Baltic state's population has fallen by 600,000.

Karbauskis, who so far has not made a bid for any top ministerial post in the future government, has raised the prospect of a "grand coalition" of all parties in parliament to create a technocratic government focused on the economy.

"Their proposal to put professionals in key ministerial posts attracted undecided voters looking for more competent people in politics," Vilnius University analyst Mazvydas Jastramskis told AFP.

The LPGU is "neither left nor right", he said, adding that "the party doesn't really know how to brand itself."

The LPGU opened coalition talks with parties from both the left and right on Monday vowing to forge a "rational" government with "transparent and responsible policies".