A strange Lithuanian tradition: a party leader avoids the responsibility of becoming head of government

  • 2024-06-17
  • Vytautas Dumbliauskas

This year, 2024, is an extraordinary one for Lithuania, as three political cycles are coming to an end, necessitating three elections: for the President of the Republic, the European Parliament, and the Seimas (Parliament). The presidential elections have already taken place, and the European Parliament elections have garnered little interest from our citizens, as evidenced by the low turnout. Consequently, all attention is now turning to the Seimas elections, which are by far the most important of the three.

Sociological surveys indicate that the results of the Seimas elections should favor left-wing parties, among which the Social Democratic Party currently stands out. If the elections were held next Sunday, this party would receive the most votes in a multi-member constituency. Given that the party has strong candidates in single-mandate constituencies covering small towns and cities, it could be expected to win the most seats and, thus, the post of Prime Minister.

Herein lies the ambiguity—it is not at all clear whom the Social Democrats would nominate for the post of Prime Minister. It is apparent in the public sphere that the party chairwoman, Vilija Blinkeviciute, is completely unwilling to take up this post because she enjoys being a Member of the European Parliament and will again run in the elections for that institution. For some time now, the Social Democrats have suggested they have a serious candidate for Prime Minister in the mayor of Jonava, Mindaugas Sinkevicius. However, he is currently embroiled in a scandal over the use of funds allocated for the activities of a municipal council member and is presently entangled in court proceedings. Even if he is acquitted, this politician will be left with significant reputational problems, so it will be interesting to see how the Social Democratic leadership handles this candidate for the Prime Minister's seat.

If V. Blinkeviciute refuses to be Prime Minister, we will be witnessing a strange tradition that has already been established, contradicting the norms of the parliamentary system. According to these norms, the leader of the party that wins an election becomes the Prime Minister. This rule was first broken in 2016 when Ramunas Karbauskis, the chairman of the State Union of Peasants, appointed a non-partisan, Saulius Skvernelis, to fill this post. Soon after, the same was done by the Homeland Union, when, after the 2020 Seimas elections, the party's leader, Gabrielius Landsbergis, handed the post to a non-partisan, Ingrida Simonyte.

The Social Democrats will certainly not seek a non-partisan person, but their problem is that, apart from V. Blinkeviciute, they do not have any other prominent politicians with the competence to take on the challenging post of head of government. The names of some municipal mayors mentioned in the public domain only confirm this—these mayors have not been members of the Seimas or worked in central government institutions, so it would not be easy for them to transition suddenly from municipal to national issues. However, whoever the Social Democrats choose, if it is not the party’s chairperson, they would continue the strange Lithuanian tradition of the party leader shirking the responsibility of taking on the burden of the head of government.

Another uncertainty is what the governing coalition of the parties that win the elections would look like. There is an almost certain belief in the public space that the Farmers Union and the Union of Democrats "For Lithuania" will not be able to work in one coalition because, for the Farmers, the Democrats are traitors who left the Farmers Union in 2022 to found a new party. It was interesting to see how, in some municipalities, entire sections of the Farmers Union switched to the Union of Democrats led by S. Skvernelis.

Betrayal is not rare in politics. Politicians or groups of politicians change parties for reasons only they understand. After all, the first and foremost goal of politicians is to stay in politics because not getting into parliament or a local council can often mean political death.

In addition to the drive for survival, there is another drive at work in politics—the drive for power. The possibility of gaining real power by being part of a governing coalition should overshadow the resentment of betrayal. After all, as one famous politician of the past said, in politics there are no eternal friends and no eternal enemies, only eternal interests.

Suppose the Farmers and the Democrats overcome their past differences and grievances and work in a governing coalition. However, there remains another uncertainty: the result the newly established party Nemuno Ausra (The Dawn of Nemunas), whose leader Remigijus Zemaitaitis did quite well in the presidential elections, will achieve in the elections.

Politics is full of paradoxes. One of them is the story of the expulsion or resignation of R. Zemaitaitis from the Seimas. It would seem that violating the Constitution and breaking his oath should have discouraged the politician's followers, but the opposite has happened—it has increased his popularity. Another striking example of such a paradox is the lawsuits against Donald Trump, which have increased his political popularity.

The most important question about Zemaitaitis’s party is: how many votes will it get and from which left-wing party will it take the most voters? After all, the left electorate is not infinite—it will probably turn out the same number of voters as in every parliamentary election. Another point is that the left-wing electorate is not loyal; it changes parties easily and does not have strong electoral preferences.

All these factors—a new party and its prominent leader, voter disloyalty—create intrigue and make the outcome of the Seimas elections less predictable. It will become clearer at the end of the summer when we will have more than one sociological survey, allowing us to see the popularity of Nemuno Ausra and its relation to the rise or fall of other parties. In the meantime, the political autumn is shrouded in mist.