Polls have closed in Lithuania's first round of elections which saw nine candidates compete for the country's presidency currently held by Dalia Grybauskaite, nicknamed the "Iron Lady" for her strong resolve.

Voter turnout tallied at 56.45% at the close of voting, according to the Central Elections Commission, which also said it expected to publish partial official results in the night or early on tomorrow.

Both Ingrida Simonyte and Gitanas Nauseda said they expected to go through to the second round, while Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said it was unlikely he would clinch one of the two top places

What was described as a close race had been dominated by concerns over poverty and income inequality in the Baltic state that boasts some of the eurozone's strongest growth.

But surveys suggest only three stand a chance of making it to an expected 26 May run-off that would coincide with European Parliament elections.

Centre-left Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, conservative ex-finance minister Ingrida Simonyte and independent economist Gitanas Nauseda lead the pack focused primarily on bread and butter issues.

Ms Simonyte, who scored 22.3% in a pre-election poll, is popular with wealthy, educated urban voters while Mr Skvernelis' populist approach resonates with the rural poor.

The Vilmorus pollsters gave him 16.7% backing, while Mr Nauseda scored 21.9%.

Gitanas Nauseda, an economist, seeks to bridge the rich-poor divide in the former Soviet republic of 2.8 million people that joined the EU and NATO in 2004.

It is struggling with a sharp decline in population owing to mass emigration to Western Europe by people seeking a better life.

Lithuania's Prime Minister and presidential candidate Saulius Skvernelis (L)

A recent EU report noted that almost 30% of Lithuanians "are at risk of poverty or social exclusion" and that this risk is "nearly double" in rural areas.

"Citizens are thirsty for social justice and seek a candidate who can bridge existing social polarisation," Donatas Puslys from the Vilnius Policy Analysis Institute told AFP.

All candidates support EU and NATO membership as bulwarks against neighbouring Russia, especially since its 2014 military intervention in Ukraine.

Robust annual wage growth of around 10% has raised the average gross monthly salary to €970 but poverty and income inequality remain among the highest in the EU, largely due to weak progressive taxation.

Unemployment stood at 6.5% in the first quarter of 2019, and the economy is forecast to grow by 2.7% this year, well above an average of 1.1% in the 19-member eurozone.

Brussels has urged Vilnius to use solid growth fuelled mostly by consumption to broaden its tax base and spend more on social policies.

A technocrat who warns against deepening inequality and the rural-urban divide, Ms Simonyte has vowed to reduce it by boosting growth further.

Voting today in Vilnius Ingrida Simonyte insisted presidents need to listen to "different opinions, seek consensus and properly represent Lithuania abroad."

Lithuanian presidential candidate Ingrida Simonyte

Socially liberal, Ms Simonyte supports same-sex partnerships.

Seeking stronger anti-corruption measures and faster income growth, Raminta Tubinyte said that Ms Simonyte got her vote.

"We could do more to align with Western states," the 21-year-old Vilnius sales clerk told AFP.

A former police chief named prime minister after the Farmers and Green Union won general elections in 2016, Saulius Skvernelis is courting the disgruntled rural poor.

Mr Skvernelis, 48, has labelled his rivals "elitist" and vowed to fight corruption and continue generous spending "to reduce social exclusion and support families".

Gitanas Nauseda casts his vote

Known for financial acumen, independent candidate Gitanas Nauseda vows to build a "welfare state" and urges greater social dialogue.

A 54-year-old former banking adviser, he has fans among voters seeking an impartial president who remains above political feuds.

Mr Nauseda said he felt a "huge responsibility for there to be less polarisation", after casting his ballot on Friday in early voting.

Vilnius University analyst Kestutis Girnius described Gitanas Nauseda as "moderate and measured on almost all issues, perhaps too finely so, leading to doubts about what he really believes".

Nauseda voter Feliksas Markevicius wanted the new president to help emigrants return to Lithuania.

"We need to improve living conditions because many people are forced to work abroad," the pensioner told AFP after voting in Vilnius.

Lithuanian presidents steer foreign policy, attending EU summits, but must consult with the government and the prime minister on appointing most senior officials.