Lithuania has just elected its new Parliament. On Sunday, 9 October, Lithuanian people gathered to elect 71 members of Seimas (Lithuanian Parliament) in single member constituencies, while 2 weeks later, 23 October, the rest 70 were elected in nationwide constituencies. That is why it is only after the night of October 23 that we could discuss the final results. In fact, many politicians and journalists would expect the new ruling coalition to be announced even by next evening, as it is usually clear, taking into account traditional Conservative-Social democratic dualism in Lithuanian politics. However, with the results being much more unexpected than having previously thought, we can only guess what kind of coalition is possible and what it can bring to Lithuania.
President: Lithuanian people voted for change
Such was a comment by Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė regarding the results. While the recent antagonism between her and the Social Democratic Party was obvious, the fact that such a big number of new and in many cases unknown people were elected signified (again) the disappointment with the traditional parties and particularly with the current government and Parliament. A Prime Minister, however, refused to admit he made mistakes during his term.
Pre-election sociological surveys predicted the lead for the centre-left Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP), followed by the big-tent Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union (LVŽS) and a centre-right Homeland Union (TS-LKD) with the difference of estimated percentage being so close to a statistical error that it was not predictable which one will take a lead.
The results, however, turned out to be unexpected and full of surprises for both commentators and politicians. The LSDP, whose leader Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius was among the most trusted politicians according to the previous opinion polls and whose political party had the highest number of seats in the Parliament suffered a painful blow. The first round left them the 3rd in positions won, with even a poorer performance on the second round, 17 elected seats in total.
A great surprise was the resurgence of a previously minor LVŽS, led by a Lithuanian businessman and philanthropist Ramūnas Karbauskis. “The Farmers’ Party” in “triumph” as BBC (almost) nailed it. Having been just 0.18% behind TS-LKD on the 1st round, the party won most of the duels in the 2nd round. 56 seats, or almost 40%, if counting the seats from both rounds, might resemble more the results from the Japanese parliamentary election or first two Lithuanian parliamentary election after the Independence. The party was mostly defined as center-left by the Lithuanian press, even though there were some center-right labels in the foreign press. In fact, it would be more precise to dub the party a ‘big tent’, as its members range from far-left to right-wing. Even 2 key people (R. Karbauskis and Saulius Skvernelis) have very different opinions on many economic and social matters. The leader of TS-LKD called it more left-wing than LSDP on economic policies, but more right-wing on social policies than TS-LKD itself. It is certainly going to be very difficult to find compromises inside the party, let alone with any of 2 other major political parties. R. Karbauskis, however, has demonstrated during the debates that he expects his party members not to deviate much from his positions when voting.
Another big sensation was the elimination of a right-wing populist Labour Party, also known for being the second biggest political party in Lithuania by membership. Its new leader, a former member of the eurosceptic Law and Justice Valentinas Mazuronis, failed to convince Lithuanian voters that his party “can do something that others cannot”, as the official slogan claimed. Even his attempts to radicalize this party by notorious anti-refugee agenda did not help – he and his party, not the refugees, were left out – out of Seimas. As a consequence he had to step down as a leader. The third biggest party in the previous Parliament are having only 2 delegates from now on, with no prominent party figures present.
The election was generally more favourable for the right-wing political parties (with the exception of the Labour Party). The Liberal Movement of the Republic of Lithuania (LRLS) scored the historic 9.45% during the first round and easily surpassed the electoral threshold of 5%, despite the threats from the opinion polls that they might not make it to the Parliament at all. The 2nd round was even more successful, with more mandates won than the LSDP did. Overall, the result was the 4th highest, winning the Liberals 14 seats. LRLS was one of the most youth-backed parties in the election, despite a dramatic shake of its reputation by quite a recent scandal when a then-leader of the party was alleged of having accepted 106.000€ bribery.
The Conservatives, TS-LKD, were celebrating their victory during the 1st round, but the 2nd one was much less successful and one could easily notice some disappointment in the faces of their leader Gabrielius Landsbergis or a former austerity Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius. Despite having only 31 seats in the Parliament, thus less than either 4 or 8 years ago, the Party came 2nd and has ambitions to be one of the main parties in a ruling coalition.
Many political analysts had expected this election to end the parliamentary existence of a right-wing populist Law and Justice. This party was shaken by numerous scandals, including possible voter frauds during the Election Day (again) as the most recent one, but it was its ally Labour Party that dwindled away. The Law and Justice, to the contrary, scored satisfactorily and with 8 members in the fraction remained as the most Eurosceptic and right-wing party in the Parliament.
Are all possible coalitions going to be on the expense of social or economic development?
As the election is clearly dominated by a political power which had a history only as a minor party (it had only 1 seat in Seimas, as well as 1 MEP), it is not easy to assume what kind of coalition to expect. I would assume 3 coalitions are possible, depending on the outcome of negotiations.
Option no. 1. The LVŽS+TS-LKD coalition was considered the most credible right until the results of the 2nd round came out. It was expected that the Liberals would be an important 3rd party in the coalition, but the latter option seems nearly impossible because of too big differences and even personal antipathies. On the other hand, the relations between the leaders of the 2 biggest parties are far from being amicable. Gabrielius Landsbergis, the leader of TS-LKD, accused the LVŽS leader R. Karbauskis of “trying to do everything to ruin the negotiations” and “lack of diplomacy”, at the same time praising his colleague, former Minister of the Interior, Saulius Skvernelis. In return, the leader of LŽVS had accused G. Landsbergis of being too assertive and “against the values that his party declares”, pointing out to his opponent’s support for the same-sex civil unions during debates and claimed that his own party’s opinion is firm and not varying. However, R. Karbauskis seemed to have been more in favour for the coalition with the center-right parties, stressing a conservative social policy that he generally shares with the conservative TS-LKD. The Peasants-Conservative coalition would secure 87 seats in the Parliament out of 141.
However, despite such a coalition being most credible due to the fact that it would be formed by the winning parties, such an option is very dubious in practice. The leader of TS-LKD has pointed out several times that he is not satisfied with some of the “red lines, drawn by LVŽS” and that he could barely imagine his party inside the coalition if some are not redrawn. Furthermore, TS-LKD would like to have the Liberals by their side. And they have several reasons for that. With the Liberals present, the two could negotiate more easily the conditions which are not satisfactory for TS-LKD. Secondly, G. Landsbergis might feel a sense of responsibility for the young voters and is afraid for the coalition to deteriorate into an anti-modern right-wing one. This threat is very probable if the coalition consists of 2 parties only, taking into account a strong influence of the Christian democratic faction consisting of particularly conservative and clericalist politicians who are in constant competition with significantly more liberal young Conservatives. However, neither the Liberals, nor LVŽS wants each other’s presence, so the coalition is not going to be bigger. If such a coalition is to be decided, Lithuania would see a right-wing coalition with a probable backslide in social policy, but a consistent pro-EU foreign policy and at least not harmful economic policies. Generally left-wing economic proposals by LVŽS and center-right-wing ones by TS-LKD might give birth to a non-regressive economic policy which would combine many social aspects while securing economic growth.
Option no. 2. Even though the LVŽS+LSDP coalition initially deemed as a less probable option, it seems slightly more possible now. If such a coalition comes out to rule Lithuania, the country would witness a center-left coalition, with socially responsible economic politics which might, however, turn out to be not effective enough. The LSDP has a very experienced candidate for the Finance minister’s office, but she might have to resign, as R. Karbauskis demanded new people to be appointed for ministers. The foreign policy might remain pro-EU, despite the soft euroscepticism of LVŽS, but Lithuania would no longer be one of the most outspoken critics of Putin’s regime inside the EU, unless the current minister L. Linkevičius does not lose his office. The social policy might be full of compromises, so abortions would not be disbanded as V. Karbauskis opted, but it is almost undoubted that Artificial insemination or Civil Union laws would not be even proposed. Overall, such a coalition would have the hardest consequences for the Lithuanian left, and the Social-democrats would risk of making their ratings drop to historic lows. Even though the LSDP does not use as strict tone as TS-LKD in negotiations, there is no easy solution in this case either.
Option no. 3. LVŽS coalition with the Parties, other than TS-LKD and LSDP. When R. Karbauskis noticed reluctance of both major parties to go into the coalition, he boldly claimed his party would not have many difficulties to form a coalition without the presence of the two. Despite such a claim being interpretable as a pressure towards the other biggest parties, such an option is not at all impossible and is in fact worth being discussed. Even though the LVŽS initially claimed they would not go into the coalition with a right-wing Law and Justice, this could be changed if the options mentioned above are not applicable. LVŽS have already 56 votes, so they need only 15 more which they would acquire if they invite Law and Justice and the pro-Russian ultraconservative Electoral Action of Lithuanian Poles (LLRA).
Such a coalition would be the most disastrous for the development of Lithuania. The country would completely change its track in foreign policy – something that has never happened irrespective of party “swings” after the election since the 2004 political crisis. The coalition would transform Lithuania into a stronghold of Euroscepticism and Putin-friendly politics. Neither economic, nor social development would be secured, as all parties are socially conservative (both LLRA and the leader of LVŽS expressed their wish to impose the strictest anti-abortion law in Europe). Such a coalition would be the least stable and could very easily break the Party itself, as the socially progressive delegates might be unable to work in it. However, both TS-LKD and LSDP could regain and strengthen their positions if such a situation arose.
Option no. 4. Early elections, brief political chaos and a lot of money wasted for organising new one. If the new election was needed, it would certainly be the dullest, because no party would have money for more advertisement, as some political analysts noted. Such chaos would be the most undesirable option, but it is credible in case the 3rd option takes place.
LVŽS, quo vadis?
Despite the current ruling coalition being traditionally attributed as a centre-left, the Lithuanian politics have barely seen any truly social-democratic politics for quite a while, excluding from some individual MPs. Overall, however, despite raised pensions and minimal salary, the economic policies were not really socially-oriented, with the culmination being the new neo-liberal Labour Code which many LSDP members supported. Its amendments have made the labour contract easier and thus entitled more rights to employers, while making employees more vulnerable. Progressive taxes were not even seriously discussed either. It is therefore not surprising why the Social Democrats lost many votes from the voters who wanted more social justice. Conversely, this was a golden opportunity for LŽVS with its leader frequently talking about more control in economics. However, to what extent is his Party really left-wing remains rhetoric. In fact, while the proposals of LŽVS seem left-wing in fiscal policy, there are tremendous differences in social policy among its members. Could it be that lack of united ideology inside the party was one of the reasons why R. Karbauskis initially sought a so-called “national unity coalition”, consisting of 3 biggest parties? The LŽVS, on the other hand, differently from the other two parties, has a dark shade over its European direction records; most notably due to its support for the 2014 Lithuanian land sales referendum which would propose the ban of land sales for foreigners. Fortunately, this anti-EU referendum has failed. Furthermore, a former leader of the party, Kazimiera Prunskienė, would later leave the LŽVS just to establish a new party which had friendly relations with the United Russia political party. In addition to this, R. Karbauskis himself allegedly took part in anti-NATO demonstrations before Lithuanian admission in 2004, even though he claims he would later vote for the membership.
However, these are not the only aspects that make the personality of R. Karbauskis unclear and somewhat mysterious as a politician. Despite his left-wing (sometimes even too left-wing for a social-democrat) rhetoric regarding state economy, he is allegedly among the wealthiest men in Lithuania, having stocks and capital not only in Lithuania, but also in countries like Russia (as well as his interests there due to import of fertilizers). Another non-orthodox behaviour is his decision not to seek any governmental post, despite being a leader of a winning party. Is this a mere good will of a selfless patron known for his benefactor activities, including a children book fund and investments to the culture? Could it be that he does not want to tear his public image, so that he could successfully run for a president in 2019? Or could it be that Lithuania has a MP who intends to orchestrate his party member actions in a similar way as it is done in Poland by Jarosław Kaczyński? Coincidentally or not, he has made several positive references to current Polish government during the debates. I wish me and the others were wrong making such allegations. The time will show which is which very soon though.
Written by Audrius Sabūnas, a member of Graduates of Democracy