Learning the dangers of democracy in Lithuania

  • 2004-11-10
  • By Simonas Girdzijauskas
The fairytale about good and bad politicians, strong statesmanship, and sold-out principles in the quest for power has been playing for the third week now following the Lithuanian parliamentary elections. It started after a record seven parties and coalitions received seats in the Parliament, creating such a mix of left-wingers, right-wingers, populists, and populist wannabes that most political analysts were left scratching their heads.

The cornerstone of the post-election coalition building was supposed to be the stand of the "traditional" parties against populism. The Conservatives, Center-Liberals, Social Democrats and the Social Liberals, all of which claim to be guided by their party ideologies, made an unofficial pre-election agreement to put their political and partisan differences behind and form a "value based" or so-called "rainbow" coalition to prevent the ideologically homeless but rich and extremely ambitious populist Labor Party, led by Russian-born V. Uspaskich, from coming to power. But it soon became clear after the start of the four-party discussions that the main motivation at the negotiating table was who would get the key posts in the government. This was especially noticeable from the Working for Lithuania coalition (led by Brazauskas and Paulauskas), which was determined to keep Brazauskas as prime minister and Paulauskas as the chairman of the Parliament, in addition to at least 6 of 13 ministerial posts in the government. Considering that the right-wing parties had a combined 43 seats compared with the left's 31, one has to question Brazauskas' willingness to really work for the good of Lithuania.

The Conservatives responded by suggesting a rotation of the posts of prime minster and chairman of the Parliament between the four parties, and creating a government that was proportionate to the number of seats each party actually has. But the Working for Lithuania coalition then secretly discussed forming a governing majority with the Labor and Farmers factions. The final nail driven into the coffin of the "value based" coalition was a promise by Uspaskich to give the left coalition "everything they want."

Frustrated with Brazauskas' dual negotiations, the Conservatives left the negotiation table. After briefly considering forming a minority government with the Central-Liberals, which would not include but would have to be supported by the Conservatives, the Working for Lithuania coalition turned to the Labor Party and started finalizing the new government.

From a political point of view, Brazauskas played wonderfully - his party and coalition partners got key government posts and the majority of the ministerial posts without having won the majority in the elections. But there are an increasing number of left party members that are unhappy about the coalition with the Labor Party. If the opposing smaller factions were to break away from the Social Democrats and Social Liberals, it would seriously jeopardize the work of the entire government and the parliamentary majority.

Furthermore, the willingness of Uspaskich to play a secondary role in the government when he holds the most seats (39) in the Parliament is very suspicious. The so-called new oligarchs that entered politics via the Labor Party have invested too much and are too hungry for power to remain cushion patters for Brazauskas' prime minister chair. One suspects that the Labor Party's real goal was to join the government and eventually push out representatives of the established parties and take over key positions in the government.

The left blamed the collapsed "value based" coalition on the right, especially the Conservatives. But what options did the Conservatives and the Center-Liberals have? To sell out and enter into a coalition with the Working for Lithuania coalition that would have struggled to last until the next scheduled parliamentary elections four years from now?

The fact is some 80 members of a shaky coalition between ideological rivals cannot make a well functioning government in a 141-seat parliament. Add to that the obvious difficulties of working out a common political goal between right and left, and such an unstable coalition would have been dominated by the left because of Brazauskas and Paulauskas' key governmental posts.

Such a "value based" coalition would also have given the Labor Party the comfort of pursuing its populist agenda by criticizing everything without taking any shared responsibility for the inevitable problems facing Lithuania over the next four years. Such a government might well have collapsed in a few years and a new election called. The traditional parties would then have been blamed for this failure and their voting base considerably weakened, paving the way for the populists to come to power with even greater success.

The Labor Party's victory in this election was no accident. It is a reflection that Lithuanians fail to see the dangers of populist, anti-ideological, power and money hungry politicians coming to power. This is a dangerous and increasingly popular way to carve out a political career in Lithuania and cannot be defeated by simply pretending it does not exist.

If the Labor Party is allowed to claim four years from now that all Lithuania's problems exist because politicians ignored the people's will and did not allow the Labor Party to work it will not solve the problem of populism and the social inability to elect credible leaders, but just further compound the problem. o

Simonas Girdzijauskas

Program Director, Joint Baltic American National Committee, Inc.