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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Lithuania's government collapses in acrimony

VILNIUS (AFP) - Lithuania's government has fallen apart after Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas and his whole cabinet announced their resignation following the defection of the largest party in the coalition.

"The situation today is such that I have to step down," he told reporters on Wednesday.

Under Lithuanian law, if the prime minister quits the entire government has to resign.

President Valdas Adamkus now has 15 days to name a new prime minister who, if confirmed by the parliament, would nominate members of a new cabinet for approval by the head of state.

Brazauskas insisted that "the government could continue its work, we could find new ministers and form a new programme."

Analysts have not ruled out the possibility of early elections, which can be triggered by a three-fifths majority vote in the 141-seat parliament.

Elections can also be called by the president if lawmakers do not approve the new government's programme.

Brazauskas, 73, the last head of the Lithuanian Communist Party, has been prime minister since July 2001.

He was also the country's first president, from 1993 to 1998, after the former communist state regained its independance from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The political crisis erupted when the Labour Party abruptly recalled its five ministers from government early Wednesday in protest over the actions of the president.

"We cannot tolerate the current political situation in Lithuania, where the president is trying to ruin the work of the government and parliament," Zilvinas Padaiga, deputy chairman of the Labour Party and health minister, said.

"That's why we are leaving the government," Padaiga added.

Adamkus had said in a statement Tuesday that he did not trust Padaiga and Culture Minister Vladimiras Prudnikovas, and cast doubt on the ability of the government to work effectively.

The president suggested that the government, which lacked a parliamentary majority even before Wednesday's crisis, should be put to a confidence vote in parliament.

Labour officials head the interior, economy, justice, health and culture ministries.

The crisis has been brewing since mid-May, when police searched the Labour Party headquarters. Few details have emerged of what the search turned up, but media reports have said the party is suspected of financial impropriety.

Viktor Uspaskich, the Russian-born millionaire who heads Labour, left for Russia immediately after the searches to attend his brother's funeral and has yet to return.

He said Monday that he was temporarily suspending his duties as head of the party.

Lithuanian law says a vote of confidence in the government must be held in parliament if half the cabinet ministers change.

The crisis is the second to rock the government in the Baltic state in less than two months.

Foreign minister Antanas Valionis and social security and labour minister Vilija Blinkeviciute resigned following the withdrawal from the then four-way coalition of their Social Liberal party in April.

The Social Liberals were angered that their leader, Arturas Paulauskas, was ousted as parliamentary speaker in a vote by legislators.
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